FROM THE KALMAR  FILES

Understanding the fight-or-flight response 

The experts at Kalmar explain how the nervous system activates in times of stress and how important it is to calm down

Q

How does our stress response work?

AIf you ever feel a tightness in your chest or your heartbeat racing whenever you receive an email from someone you don’t like or read a negative news story, it’s because your brain detects a threat and triggers the fight-or-flight response. This is your sympathetic nervous system. On the other hand, your parasympathetic nervous system helps to switch on your rest and digest response and enables your body to relax. For example, in the case of our ancestors, if you successfully ran away from a tiger and returned to your warm, safe and risk-free cave, this would send a signal to the brain that the threat had been removed and you could return to a state of peace and harmony. However, with the way our society has evolved, these days often the ‘off’ button does not get pressed – especially recently, with the pandemic – and therefore our mind and bodies experience continuous low- (or high) level chronic stress. These underlying chronic stressors can have serious health consequences on our minds and bodies unless we intervene by activating our nervous system.

Q

What is the vagus nerve?

AThe vagus nerve is a major nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. It is one of the longest and most important nerves in the body originating in the brain and extending down through the neck to the gut. Research has shown that it can affect everything, from your mood and stress levels to your digestion, heart rate and immune response. Professor Stephen Porges hypothesises in his polyvagal theory that the parasympathetic nervous system is governed by two major networks: the dorsal vagal nerve network and the ventral vagal nerve network.

Q

What is the dorsal vagal nerve?

AWhen you are unable to resolve a threat through fight-or-flight – for example, in the case of the pandemic or other stressful events – you are unable to run away or physically fight, so your body may decide therefore that it is ‘safer’ to physically and mentally switch off. This is the dorsal vagal nerve network kicking into play and is called dissociation. When you are in a dissociated state, you can feel like everything is too overwhelming and you can feel hopeless or even depressed. This is why, after you hear some negative news or receive an unwanted email from a boss or client, all you might feel like doing is giving up.

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Q

What is the ventral vagal nerve?

AConversely, the ventral vagal nerve network is stimulated when you deeply connect with another person (or with yourself, by acknowledging and reacting to your body’s signs of stress), which in turn causes a sense of calm. So, it is the ventral vagal nerve you want to activate whenever you are feeling stressed.

Q

How does the ventral vagal nerve function?

AThe ventral vagal network, also known as the social engagement system, extends up from around the diaphragm to the brain stem, crossing over nerves in the lungs, neck, throat and eyes. Rituals using parts of the body – including deep breaths, gargling, humming or social engagement like smiling or making eye contact with someone – send signals to the brain to say that it is safe to relax. Stimulation of the ventral vagal network can also activate the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that supports logical thinking. So, activating the ventral vagal network can help you to think more clearly, creating a ripple effect to further reduce stress in the mind and body.

So, how do you stimulate the ventral vagal nerve and trigger a sense of calm and peace? Read our tips here [link to below template] for ways to come out of fight-or-flight response.