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Your sympathetic nervous system provides the "fight or flight" response of your body to stress. It prepares your body for action by regulating your heartbeat, the release of sugar from glycogen stored in your liver, and your muscle tone. It's very active when you are under stress, especially when you experience sweating, loss of bowel or bladder control as your sympathetic nervous system takes over from your parasympathetic (maintenance) nervous system, anxiety, panic, and other strong emotions.

The fact that you are aware of the activity of your sympathetic nervous system, however, doesn't mean that you have a problem you need to fix. You don't really want to disable your body's primary defense against danger, any more than you want to remove the accelerator from your car because you speed now and then.

True hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system is relatively rare, and here is a good test for it:

If you can't shed tears when you cry, and you don't have an abnormality of your tear ducts, then you may have an autonomic dysfunction affecting your sympathetic nervous system.

However, this is a better test for children than for adults.

Other signs are blinking a lot or blinking very fast, and red, dry eyes that become desiccated during sleep because of eyelid flutter. You may also have weaker reflexes (to having your knee tapped with the doctor's hammer, for instance) and muted perception of heat and cold. You may tend to have food  and drink "go down the wrong pipe" a lot, and you will probably have a racing heart.

Having any or all of these symptoms, however, doesn't mean you need to "fix" your sympathetic nervous system.

You need to focus on your discomfort at more of a single-system level. Don't try to manage the nervous system functions that your body manages on its own. Here are some suggestions:

  • Chiropractic manipulation isn't scientifically confirmed to reduce "sympathetic nervous system symptoms," but it works well enough that an Australian medical school is currently conducting clinical trials. If you go to a chiropractor for anxiety, you will get better results if you treat it as part of a holistic approach to getting better. Your attitude should not be "This better cure me or else." You'll get more benefit if you approach hands-on manipulation therapies with an attitude of "This will probably help."
  • Massage therapy reliably reduces anxiety, as does a combination of massage plus Reiki. 
  • A group of researchers at McGill University in Canada and Florida State University are currently studying whether hand massage relieves anxiety, and how long the effects last. There is enough reason to believe it does to invest in a formal clinical trial.
  • Marijuana may or may not relieve symptoms associated with sympathetic nervous activity. Higher-THC strains may make the problems worse, while higher-CBD strains may relieve them. However, you won't be able to determine whether a particular marijuana cigarette is high-THC or high-CBD by most street dealers. You would need to go to a dispensary.
  • Hot showers often relieve anxiety. They seem to have greater benefits for men.
  • Japanese spa bathing (cleaning the body with a shower and then soaking in a large tub) reduces blood test levels of stress hormones associated with hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Chinese herbal remedies containing jiao teng are usually intended to relieve restlessness at night. A Chinese herbal remedy chosen specifically for you by a trained practitioner who makes you your own tea usually is helpful (if not particularly pleasant to drink). Chinese patent medicines bought off the shelf without professional guidance, however, usually are not.
  • Beta-blockers are helpful for sweating and nervous muscle movements. If you have asthma, however, they can cause serious problems. Most doctors will prescribe them for certain aspects of anxiety, but you have to get a prescription.

 

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