Are you thriving or do you feel like you are only just surviving, struggling to get through the day with little down time?
This is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves. The answer has a profound impact on our health, and our ability to recover from health challenges, as well as our mental health.
Survival Mode and the Sympathetic Nervous System
When we are on edge, on the go and working hard to get everything done, the ‘fight or flight’ mode of the nervous system is activated – this is called the sympathetic nervous system or Survival Mode. For many, this is their default way of doing the world and allows them to power through everything that needs to be done.
Yes, just being constantly ‘on the go’ and busy can keep this mode of the nervous system activated. Being stuck in traffic, or simply being short of time are enough. Our bodies interpret these small but often constant stressors, using the same sympathetic nervous system that we use to respond to an actual threat to our safety or life. The modern world is full of these micro-stressors that probably weren’t so common in cave-man times and lead to our body now spending much of its time in this state.
Rest and Digest mode and the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System
When we are at rest, having down time and processing our day, we are in ‘Rest and Digest’, or parasympathetic mode of the nervous system. We breath gently and take time to enjoy conversation and enjoy our food.
When in this mode, the body focusses on important processes such as digestion, detoxification, and repair. These are the essential processes for optimal health and recovery from chronic health issues such as IBS, auto-immune diseases, cancer, fatigue and neurological conditions. But the body doesn’t focus on these processes when are are stressed as instead blood flow is directed to our muscles. It’s in Survival mode and is readying itself to run away from our threat (remember our bodies haven’t evolved physically since caveman times when threats often required us to run, hide or fight.
I’d also like to make clear that past trauma, whether from childhood or adulthood, may need to be worked through before the body can move from Surviving to Thriving. Past trauma can keep us locked in a mode of hyper-vigilance to the world around us. Also, by definition, it keeps us in a Survival mode looking out for threats, both within the body and around us, and keeps us from Thriving.
Now, these two modes of the nervous system literally can not be activated at the same time. If we are stressed and busy, the nervous system can not be in the state that prioritises repair and digestion.
Most of us, would benefit from spending more time in the Rest and Digest mode and less time in Survival mode. To do this, we may need to consciously devote time to rest and recovery each and every day to support our health. As our society and culture encourages busyness, pushing through tiredness, and getting things done, it can be quite a paradigm shift to focus more on relaxation and maybe doing less. However, a shift in priorities is exactly what is needed to allow the body to redirect its resources towards healing itself. It doesn’t matter how great your diet is if you are constantly in survival mode. This needs to be addressed to recover fully!
Out of this comes a second question..
What can I do day to day that moves the needle from Surviving to Thriving?
What do I do that brings me joy, and boosts my reserves?
That puts money back in my energy bank account?
The first thing to consider is always your sleep. If you often tired, your nervous system can become stuck in Survival mode. It’s very difficult to thrive when you aren’t getting enough sleep. I recommend at least 7 hours of sleep for everyone, and if you have a chronic health condition, you may need 8 or 9 hours whilst you recover! See my blog post here for some help to create an evening routine to help you fall asleep.
Doing things that you enjoy and that are fun is also important. I suggest writing down 3 things that you can regularly do that have brought you joy in the past and put a smile to your face, put a glint in your eye, and then do each of them in the next week. These activities are a form of active rest and will help you recoup far quicker than watching Netflix as they move your nervous system to Rest and Digest mode of operation.
Of course, what you eat also plays an important role, but it’s always the most important factor! However, if you are eating processed packaged foods with lots of sugar and refined flours, you’ll need to take a look at this before you can fully thrive. There also brain retraining programs such as the GUPTA and DNRS programs.