sympathetic overdrive

Is sympathetic overdrive inhibiting your bodies healing process?

Is sympathetic overdrive inhibiting your bodies healing process?

Colloquially known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and commonly referred to as stress, our bodies reaction to our sympathetic nervous system is something we’ve all experienced. At times it can help push us towards greatness, but at others it can make us crumble and fall. An evolutionary throw back to our hunter-gatherer past it has helped keep us alive and reproducing for the last 200,000 years, but what happens when you can’t turn it off? Are you in sympathetic overdrive and what could that mean for your body?

Sympathetic and Parasympathetic

You probably vaguely remember from high school biology that the autonomic nervous system – the part of our nervous system not under our conscious control (although we can influence parts of it like respiration rate) – is broken up into two parts, mirror images of each other: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is our internal emergency service: heart and respiration rate increases; blood and nutrients rush to the skeletal muscles; pupils dilate; hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine are released preparing us for action.

The parasympathetic nervous system is it’s polar opposite: heart and respiration rate decreases; blood and nutrients are sent to the stomach/liver/kidneys; pupils constrict; stress hormones are inhibited, it is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’ side of our lives.
While the sympathetic nervous system is catabolic (tears the body down), which is why after an ‘adrenalin rush’ you feel fatigued, it has used up energy and depleted you. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand is anabolic, it produces growth and rebuilds the body – essentially your body heals itself at rest.

While only one system is ever active at any given time and they are not competing forces (they are there to create balance and homeostasis within our bodies) for the health and wellbeing of both our physical and mental selves we should be spending the majority of our lives in parasympathetic bliss. Sadly in todays 24 hour society, with work (or lack there of), exams, relationships, children, debt, mortgages, and a million and one other things on our minds the majority of us have swung the other way and are stuck in sympathetic overdrive.

How sympathetic overdrive affects your body?

  • Increased levels of cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Decreased immune system
  • Inflammatory response is inhibited
  • White blood cells are reduced
  • Susceptibility to disease increases
  • In animal studies monkeys under long term stress had more clogged arteries = increased risk of heart attack and stroke
    Mice under prolonged stress had smaller brain cells with fewer branch extensions than normal mice, particularly in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory
  • Teleomeres (the caps at the end of our chromosomes that allow for division) shorten under prolonged stress and therefore the chromosome is able to divide less times, once the telomere is gone the chromosome dies = the ageing process speeds up and ultimately life span shortens

Signs your suffering from sympathetic overdrive

  • You have trouble getting to or staying asleep
  • You rely on stimulants: coffee / energy drinks / sugar to get you through the day
  • You have a work hard / play hard attitude to life and are always on the go
  • You have trouble concentrating on a single task and instead try to do everything at once
  • You constantly over analyse your performance at work and how you could have done better
  • You always feel fatigued
  • You have trouble winding down and switching your brain off
  • You suffer from headaches
  • Your muscles feel tense
  • You find yourself clenching your jaw
  • You feel anxious
  • It takes you ages to fully get over a common cold
  • Your ability to remember things has decreased
  • Your breathe is generally shallow and fast
  • You suffer from IBS or similar gastric problems
  • You have panic attacks
  • Your sex drive has decreased
  • Churning stomach

The Japanese call it ‘karōshi’ – death from overwork, but anything that triggers the stress response can lead you down the path to sympathetic overdrive. It is considered common knowledge that stress is a contributing factor in most illnesses: cardiac problems, autoimmune diseases, strokes, depression, chronic pain and skin disorders like eczema/psoriasis, have all been linked to sympathetic overdrive or stress.

How to kick start your parasympathetic nervous system?

Obviously as a massage therapist I’m going to say that! But in all seriousness massage has been shown to:

  • activate the parasympathetic nervous system
  • release oxytocin – a hormone that reduces the stress response – helps your blood vessels relax and your heart regenerate from stress related damage
  • relax body and mind
  • aid sleep
  • reduced anxiety
Other things that have be shown to help that are outside of my area of expertise are things like:


Some studies have suggested that acupuncture can be used to help with stress.
If you’re based in Brighton check out these guys Dragon Acupuncture Project, they’re AWESOME!

Headspace is something I’ve just started using, it’s just 10 minutes a day and you can try it for free HERE.

Simply taking long slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth can help you feel calmer. Yoga and Qi Gong classes also include more advanced breathing exercises.

Can be anything you actually enjoy, you don’t need to force yourself to go to the gym. When you exercise your body releases endorphins (feel good hormones) and if your body is tired you’re more likely to sleep better.

Switch off
The body likes routine, so get yourself into a bedtime routine, switch off your computer/tablet/phone an hour before bed and give yourself time to wind down.

Don’t try to go it alone
We all need a bit of help now and again so if the stresses in your life are getting on top of you, talk to someone about it, a friend/family member or go see a professional – a problem shared and all that!

life is too short

Jemma Fordham is a clinical massage therapist who specialises in the treatment of chronic pain conditions based in Brighton. She works with her clients to help facilitate their bodies own healing through bodywork, exercise and education.

If you would like more information or need to book an appointment please call 07843 666 806 or use this form.

Posted in Lifestyle, massage, Pain.


  1. Hi, I have been diagnosed with RSD/CRPS and would like to know if you have any tips on calming down our sympathetic nervous system once it has been sent into overdrive. Thank you.

  2. Mirror box work, graded imagery and good craniosacral therapy would be my suggestions. Can recommend cst practitioners in your area. Normalise ypur input helps normalise your oytput from brain. Using a mirror to look at your affected limb (ie you use your right hand but brain registers left cos can see mirror image) helps brain feel limb is normal and quietens the sympathetics. CST will get right to the parasympatgetic and quieten the response.

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