What Is Sympathetic Nervous System Overload, and How Do I Avoid It?

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What Is Sympathetic Nervous System Overload, and How Do I Avoid It?

The term “sympathetic nervous system overload” sounds daunting, but the root cause is pedestrian: stress. Stress is, of course, something we all experience all the time, but left unchecked, it can have a huge impact on our nervous system.

Although we might think it’s only the bigger-picture issues that have serious implications for our health and well-being, the reality is that nervous system overload can occur as a result of the buildup of hundreds of tiny daily micro-stressors. The things that count as small stressors aren’t always negative, either. Watching a gripping F1 race or seeing your child perform in a play could also trigger a stress response from the body, resulting in the same sweaty palms and soaring blood pressure. Then there’s the impact of the omnipresence of social media.

“The root of the issue lies in the constant barrage of stressors we face in our daily lives,” says Jenna Vyas-Lee, a clinical psychologist and cofounder of mental health clinic Kove. “From work deadlines and financial pressures to social obligations and technological distractions, our nervous systems are bombarded with stimuli that trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response. Moreover, the pervasive nature of digital technology means that we’re constantly tethered to our devices, leading to a state of perpetual alertness and hypervigilance. The incessant notifications, emails, and social media updates keep our sympathetic nervous systems on high alert, contributing to chronic stress and overwhelm.”

The sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, refers to the central nervous system that governs the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, which is activated when we feel triggered by something stressful. For our ancestors, that might have been a genuine threat to life, but these days it’s likely to be something far more innocuous that sends us into a stress spiral, like a barrage of unwanted emails, a tedious traffic jam, or a noisy neighbor.

“Our modern environment is rife with environmental stressors, such as noise pollution, air pollution, and artificial lighting, which can disregulate our nervous systems and contribute to heightened states of arousal,” explains Vyas-Lee. Although very different to triggers of old, they still cause the same chain reaction in our nervous system, which starts with the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This then triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which prompts the release of hormones like cortisol via the adrenal glands. That process causes the physical response we associate with feeling stressed, such as an increased heart rate, muscle contractions, higher blood pressure, and faster, more shallow breathing.

Because the stressors described are so small and occur so frequently (in the case of a jarring alarm clock, before we’ve even gotten out of bed), we are less attuned to the problems they present, and therefore less likely to do anything about it. But once you’re making an effort to be conscious of small stressors, there are easy ways to deal with them and begin redressing the balance.

Reframe your stress.

According to experts, the human brain is naturally wired to give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones, so it makes sense that we should recognize—and react to—every little stress threat so acutely. It takes time, patience, and practice, but reframing your thoughts and trying to find the positive challenge as opposed to the chaos in any situation can really help. Adopting this mindset repeatedly will eventually make it a habit, meaning you ought to feel less overwhelmed when potentially stressful situations occur.

Say no.

These days it’s normal to be always “on,” but this endless openness has consequences. “Be selective about the commitments you take on, and learn to say no to tasks or obligations that don’t align with your priorities or values,” says Vyas-Lee. “Setting boundaries around your time and energy is crucial for preventing overload.”

Breathe easier.

An instant and accessible stress solution, learning to breathe our way through SNS overload is a useful skill. Box breathing is a highly studied and utilized technique, not least in the military, where moments of heightened stress are par for the course. To follow the box-breathing method, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four, imagining you’re creating a square shape with your breath as you do it. To keep your breaths nice and deep, aim to keep each one coming from your stomach as opposed to your chest. Repeat until you feel more comfortable.

Silence the noise.

Scheduling periods when your phone is on airplane mode—or switched to silent at the very least—can help foster good habits that will lead to a more balanced nervous system. “Minimize distractions by turning off notifications, closing unnecessary tabs or apps, and creating a dedicated workspace free from clutter,” says Vyas-Lee. “This can help you stay focused and avoid becoming overwhelmed by sensory input.”

Tap, tap, tap.

Tapping, or the emotional freedom technique (EFT), is backed by studies that cite its ability to lower cortisol. The premise behind EFT is that by focusing on the body’s meridian points—or energy hot spots—you can initiate and maintain a more balanced flow of energy, leaving you feeling less distressed and depleted. For a lesson in how to master the basic technique, The Tapping Solution has a good step-by-step guide.

Schedule calm time.

Prioritizing calm time, when your brain and body can relax, isn’t a luxury—it’s necessary. When it’s not engaged in any specific task, the brain enters into what’s known as the default network mode, or a period of passive rest, which is responsible for unconscious processing. Although this practice of consolidation is essential, when it’s constantly interrupted by an external stimulus like stress, it doesn’t get the time it needs to fulfill its role.

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