You may not have heard of the rest-and-digest response to stress. But if you’ve ever suffered with anxiety, you’ll know the all-too-familiar feeling of dread that can overwhelm like a tidal wave when you’re least expecting it, or fill you with an underlying sense of unease that’s impossible to shake.
Anxiety manifests in very physical symptoms: heart palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking, nausea, insomnia (the list goes on). The “irrational” nature of anxiety means it’s often triggered by something undeserving of such a heightened stress response – a social gathering or work deadline – and according to Mental Health UK, over eight million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time. So, what’s causing such wide-spread panic and more importantly, how can we get a grip on it?
Psychological counsellor at The Private Therapy Clinic Avesta Panahi explains that as humans, we have evolved with a built-in fight-or-flight response in order to protect us from danger. “It would have been very useful thousands of years ago, when we were hunter gatherers surviving in the wild,” she tells GLAMOUR. “And while that survival mechanism is still important now, our stress response can become heightened or over aroused, and instead of serving its original function of keeping us safe, it can hold us back and prevents us from doing the things we enjoy.”
The fight-or-flight response occurs when a perceived (but not always life-threatening) threat – let’s say, a social gathering – bypasses the rational part of the brain and alerts the amygdala (the emotion-driven part), which then triggers the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. “When these hormones are released, your body doesn’t know the difference between a small threat and a big threat,” says psychotherapist Alison Allart.
“The body is put into fight-or-flight mode in order to physically protect itself,” she continues. “So, your heart beats faster to pump more blood around your body and your muscles tense in preparation for either battle or fleeing.” Alison goes on to explain that the logic-driven prefrontal cortex of the brain also shuts down (you need to fight, not think!), which explains the frustrating brain fog so often experienced alongside other anxiety symptoms.
“Anxiety has always been there, but these days, we’re forced to respond to so much more than just our basic human needs,” says Alison. “We’re exposed to more via social media, and it seems we’re now more in tune with our stress response than our all-important rest-and-digest response.”
What is the rest-and-digest response?
While the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for firing off stress hormones when we’re “under attack,” the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is in charge of the complete opposite: telling the body it’s safe to focus on recovery, lowering blood pressure and triggering what’s referred to as ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’ – essential bodily functions that only take place when the body is at rest (who wants to eat a big meal and have a shag when they’re stressed out? Exactly).