Calming Down the Sympathetic Nervous System

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Fight or Flight is intended for short periods not hourly day in day out for months, it is no wonder the nervous system becomes unbalanced. My sympathetic nervous system, which is the driving force of the 'fight or flight' mechanism or as I think of it the Go Go nervous system, became hyperactive. Other signs of this that affected me were; Shallow breathing, indigestion or acid reflux and large adrenaline surges that would keep me up with heart racing till 3-4 am. Other symptoms may include: Increased heart rate, flushing (reddening of the skin and sweating). If you have CRPS there is a good chance that your sympathetic NS is overactive. The good news is there are lots of things we can do to help calm this down, therefore reducing its symptoms and the role it has in the production of pain. So by establishing what is out of sync we can now look to address the problem in a more focused way than 'here are some more drugs'.

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This can come in many forms and it is all about finding what works for you. I cannot reccommend Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga enough. Its a great gentle exersize, focussing the mind and body. I found all of these helpful with coping with my pain and over coming it. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't underestimate its power or overlook it. 


Deep, slow breathing exercises- these can be done at your desk, in the supermarket queue, whilst your boss rants and raves, the list goes on and on. Regular little breaks to keep the nervous system in check, gently calming it down and also providing a moment to listen to your body, see how you are actually getting on. It is so easily to get distracted and not realise until the it is too late that things are being steered up and gearing towards a flare-up. The better you get at noticing your body, the easier and quicker you can tune into it, making noticing when things are reving up easier and sooner. Therefore the counter plan can be put in place, calming things down......another flare up avoided, thank you very much. But it has to start with listening and a breathing space is the perfect time to do this.

Yoga, Meditation, ti chi can all be done at home in your own space as well as in classess. There are lots of free videos and audio files on you tube and online. I have also included some I have found useful in the Links section of this site.

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Cut out stimulants

Cut out caffeine and other stimulants as they directly activate the sympathetic nervous system. I know this may not sound appealing at first particularly if you are having to struggle through work and other commitments after painful sleepless nights but it is an easy place to start - Besides there are so many naturally caffeine free alternatives or if like me you love coffee, nearly all coffee outlets have decaffeinated versions of your favorite hot beverages. Believe me after a short while you will not even notice but the effects are evident, particularly if you then accidently have a Caffeinated drink it feels like a surge of adrenaline through your body. This does mean saying goodbye to coke as well, but with all the bad press about the high sugar content it’s probably a great way to kill to birds with one stone.

i.e. Caffeine  (don't worry you can still have your morning Americano and lunchtime latte there are decaffeinated drinks everywhere). It does mean goodbye to cola and energy drinks though but believe me when I say after a couple of weeks you really will not miss them.

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Stimulating the parasympathetic Nervous System


This has the opposite effect to the sympathetic nervous system. Having a calming role on the body. It is stimulated during deep breathing exersizes, even if this is just a couple of minutes throughout the day. Yoga, meditation and ti chi are also great activies for doing just this. Check out classes locally or there are lots of free introductory videos on you tube and the internet. It is great to get into a regular routine and who knows you may find you really anjoy it!

Another way to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system rubbing gently the face particularly the mouth and lips area. If you are in public you can put lip balm on and just rub it in extra well to stimulate the nerve endings in this area. 

There is also evidence (and I have personal experiance that completly agrees with this) is having a pet can be great for calming the sympathetic nervous system. I got a rescue cat cat called Zara last New year when I was really suffering. She is fantastic company, quite happy to sit with you through long hours of flare-ups, never asking any questions, looking sad or disappointed, yet stop you suffering on your own. Always bare in mind pets can be expensive (food and cat litter ect.) and they also involve a little work.

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Cold Showers

Yes you heard right and no they are not fun but effective. It all comes back down to calming down the sympathetic (go go nervous system), which is involved in the processes of dilating the blood vessels, making us and skin look flushed and sweating. When we are hot our bodies naturally sweat to cool us down, therefore the sympathetic nervous system is being stimulated. Having a cold or even a cool shower will help cool the body down quicker, reducing the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, which we know is linked with driving the pain. I particularly found this helpful after swimming and exercise. By having a cold shower I could reduce the flushing and changing colour of my leg dramatically. This time was also always great to rub, talk and yes, even sing to my beautiful foot, to remind it that it was loved and part of me. I know it may sound slightly crazy but it definitely helped me reconnect with my leg and stop is disengaging after strenuous times. 

Little steps like this meant I could start to do a little more, all the time balancing the stimulating activities with calming ones. Think about the scales again- it’s a game of balance. As I learnt to balance the activities of my life, I could neutralize the effects of the CRPS, preventing flare-ups by never overloading the stimulatory side of the scales greater than I could balance with the calming interventions. As I did this more and more, I discovered that activities that previously had a huge stimulatory effect didn't require the same degree of balancing and I could gradually increase the load without tipping the scales.


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Stop Inadvertently Feeding the Pain and the Sympathetic Nervous System


When I first went to see Daniela, a psychotherapist, she shared her rooms with a physiotherapist. While waiting in the reception area l saw a diagram that really upset me. It supported the heading 'The Path to Chronic Pain' and depicted a pathway of a person, presumably me, at various cross roads with signpost directing to the 'Road to recovery ‘or alternatively 'Path to pain'. I hated this concept, even if these crossroads were sub-conscious, un-deliberate decisions and actions. It angered and upset me that it could even be suggested that I choose consciously or subconsciously to be in this long-term agonising situation. It still makes my blood boil writing this. However when I reflect back I can see how I may unknowingly have fed the pain by repeated use of evolutionary developed mechanisms of coping with persistant driving pain. Which then developed into learnt longer-term habits.

Tensing up and battling the pain. I was in agony and knew nothing that would ease it. Nothing that in that moment I could do calm the raging searing pain inside my right ankle, so I did what evolution taught me to do tense up, scrunch up my face and clench my fists, the standard 'fight or flight' mode. Flight wasn't an option primarily because the source of this almighty stimulus was attached to me. So hence, the battle had begun!


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