Autonomic Nervous System 101
by DeDe Van Riper

The May issue of Harvard Business Review features an interview with John Medina, author of “Brain Rules.” The article, entitled The Science of Thinking Smarter, covers several topics related to what neuroscience knows about the brain and how this knowledge can be applied in business. It is filled with the fascination and promise of what is known about the brain mixed with a healthy dose of reality as to how difficult it is to apply this knowledge. Yet buried between the effects Jennifer Aniston has on some portions of the brain and the fact that people who exercise are 50% less likely to contract Altzheimer’s is a discussion on the brain’s ability to cope with stress:

Take a dramatic event in evolutionary history. A saber-toothed tiger is either going to eat you or force you to run away. In either case, the stress is over in less then a minute. You can probably have several of these spikes throughout the course of the day and handle the stress fine... But for hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve been built to handle stress for only about 30 to 60 seconds. Nowadays, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but in hours, days, and sometimes months, as we deal with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers, bad marriages, money problems. Our bodies aren’t built for that. If you have a tiger at your doorstep for years, then all kinds of internal mechanisms breakdown, from sleep rhythms to specific parts of the immune system.

Though Chiropractors probably weren’t the intended beneficiaries of this dialogue, it may apply to their business more than anyone’s. Chiropractic is a business built on the effects of stress. For over one hundred years chiropractors have strived to reverse the effects of physical, chemical and emotional stress. Yet with the current breakthroughs in bio and neurofeedback, we are finally able to see the effects that stress has on our nervous system. And arguably more significant, we are able to see how the nervous system recovers – or doesn’t recover from stress.

Let’s use the scenario of the tiger above as an example since it evokes one of the most fundamental responses we have: fight or flight. When faced with a significant stress, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into overdrive: our blood pressure goes up, our heart rate goes up, our pupils and blood vessels dilate. All of these changes help prepare us to fight or take flight. Yet once the stress is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm things down. Autonomic Nervous System 101. Yet imagine if one side of this equation or the other didn’t function properly. If the sympathetic system doesn’t kick in, you may get eaten alive. If the parasympathetic system doesn’t calm things down after the stress is removed, you may have a heart attack.

If you subscribe to the What-Doesn’t-Kill-Us-Makes-Us-Stronger Philosophy, you might argue that stress – in limited amounts – is good for us. Yet where is the line drawn between healthy challenge and damaging stress? And do you think for one second that that line is the same for everyone? Certainly not. In the interview with Medina, he addresses the fact that certain people seem to be more resilient to stress than others. Currently the science of molecular genetics is looking at a gene called 5-HHT as a possibly culprit. It appears that people with mutations in this gene – which helps regulate mood – are much more likely to become clinically depressed under stressful circumstances than someone without the mutation.

I don’t believe that Chiropractors need a genetic test to know that some patients respond differently to stress then others. And on the flip side of that, they don’t need a test to tell that some patient’s respond better to Chiropractic care than others. Yet imagine what it might be worth to your patient – and your practice - to know exactly how well they do respond to stress... even before they begin care. And it doesn’t require genetic testing. All it takes is to perform a Stress Response Evaluation (SRE). An SRE measures your patient’s response to stress using 5 different modalities. Just as in the fight or flight scenario, it will show how well they respond to meet the demands of the stress. It will also show you how well they recover from it.

How well a patient responds to stress is at the heart of Chiropractic. The ability to measure this information is invaluable. The evaluation itself is a stepping stone to educating your patient’s like you have never been able to do before. Seeing is believing. And awareness of their response to stress is half the battle. With the breakneck pace that technology is changing the world, it is not likely that the tiger is leaving our doorstep anytime soon. Yet thanks to some of that technology, we are better equipped than ever to understand, reverse, and avoid the effects of that stress.

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