Sympathetic Shift

The sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, together with the neuro-endocrine system (mostly thyroid and adrenals), are the 'doing system' The body shifts toward the sympathetic, the more doing that has to be done. More prominently, the sympathetic is also the 'fight or flight system' for emergencies. Partly because it has an emergency function, and partly because of its chemical aspect (catecholamine release) it is an all-or-none, global system. This is in distinction to the parasympathetic system, which can be active on a local basis, presumably because rest and relaxation is never an emergency.

Besides 'doing', the sympathetic nervous system is activated by threat or struggling. We have created a culture in which struggling to find a 'place in the world' and the very real threat of not finding such a place is the norm. These social threats are usually ones in which fighting or flying is 'inappropriate or punished. This is a critical point, because the physical activity of flying or fighting, if it happens, and if it is effective and comes to a conclusion, will discharge the sympathetic arousal and balance will return to the autonomic nervous system.

There is another non-fighting non-fleeing defense against milder social threats, the Social Engagement System (SES) The SES also acts as a 'vagal brake' that allows for somewhat more doing but without a full-fledged fight or flight response.

It is useful to speak both of an acute and a chronic sympathetic shift. An acute shift happens when effort is exerted, or a novelty or challenge is encountered, and absent a vagal brake, a strong fight or flight response occurs including chemically. This response cannot shift quickly at all, and so social give and take is disastrously affected. Perhaps everyone knows someone is obviously well-intentioned but who seems to get into disputes or upsets with other people frequently but with seemingly little ability to change the pattern. This is an acute shift.

A chronic sympathetic shift is constituted by a shift in the 'thermostat' of the autonomic nervous system toward sympathetic arousal. Chronic sympathetic shift arises as a permanent state largely because 1) arousal is almost continuous and 2) action is stifled. Often a person is thought 'better-mannered' the more impulses he or she stifles. The sympathetic nervous system is activated for a long time, and certain features can become fixed. The balance point between ventral vagal parasympathetic and sympathetic shifts toward the sympathetic. This may occur with 'the help' of the dorsal vagal center, which counterbalances the arousal effects of sympathetic shift without counter-balancing the 'contraction' effects. This is an example of 'allostasis' in which a balancing or 'homeostatic' system moves the target range in one direction. under constant stress.

Wilhelm Reich found that a healthy human, depending upon circumstances, is capable of experiencing full excitation of the ventral vagal parasympathetic nervous system, which allows for pleasure. However, people that have grown up in and continue to live in painful and repressive social conditions may suffer from chronic over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system--and gradually become incapable of full pleasurable parasympathetic excitation. If the 'freeze' or dorsal vagal system comes into play, it may counterbalance the effects of the sympathetic overdrive in a way but not in a completely protective way in the long run. This also leads to an eventual depletion of the neuro-endocrine system especially in the thyroid and adrenal glands. (Alexander Lowen thought that the depletion of these two glands was usually concurrent with neck and low back pain, which are endemic in our culture). Chronic, seemingly fixed, imbalance toward sympathetic response may be referred to sympathetic shift. (or more technically, sympatheticotonia).

Of course plainly traumatic situations are wide-spread and almost universal. But as stated above, in modern life, many frequent, everyday 'binds' 'trap' a person in a struggle with no way to conclude the situation promptly or definitely. This is especially the situation for children, lower status people in social situations, and many work situations. Moreover, constantly trying to achieve or perform can and often is an endless source of struggle.

Stephen Porges has developed an objective measure of autonomic tone based on respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) of the heart. This is not yet in clinical use in healing.

Sympathetic shift comes to involve mostly the physical effects that have dropped out of awareness. A person with sympathetic shift looks 'over-controlled' and may or may not act "hyper". The more mental conscious state of being engaged in fight or flight is known as 'high- (or hyper-) arousal', and may or may not accompany sympathetic shift. In our culture sympathetic shift is almost universal. Some aspects are listed below.

'Physical Signs' of Chronic Sympathetic Shift

Manifestations Possible Mechanism

Dry Eyes

Lacrimal glands are parasympathetic. this will interfere with vision, and of course, crying.
Myopia the exact mechanism is uncertain, but possibly when young wide pupils make vision blurry and then great effort to see leads to eyes growing too long front to back.
Large Pupils Direct sympathetic stimulation .Poorer visual acuity but wider field of detection
Poor Peripheral Vision This is otherwise known as 'tunnel-vision'.
Rapid Shallow Breathing Breathing occurs high in the chest, with small tidal volume. Chronic hyperventilation leads to chronic hypoxic feeling at tissue level due to Bohr effect.
CalciumIon Dysregulation Chronic hyperventilation raises blood pH but the body must
Tone Deafness The inner ear has two small but important muscles that 'tune' hearing
Poor Balance Poor balance comes from tight muscles and malalignment, and dysfunction of the vestibular system
Fear of Falling From tight feet and hips and weakened vestibular system
Fear of Heights This derives from a fear of falling
Fear of Closing Eyes Perhaps from 1) poor vestibular function that forces the eyes to take over the function of balance, 2) vigilance for threats in the immediate environment
High Blood Pressure Direct sympathetic effect on the vascular system

Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Disease

Oxidative stress damages blood vessel walls (endothelium) Sympathetic shift increases clotting tendency. Clots form readily on the damaged endothelium. High insulin levels are also a factor.

Muscle Tightness The sympathetic system stimulates gamma motor units in the muscle spindles that regulate muscle tension.
Clumsiness From poor balance, muscle tightness, and insensitivity
Joint stiffness From chronic muscle shortening which can also cause osteoarthritis
Poor Sleep Muscle tension produces racing thoughts and inability to 'let go'
Low Body Awareness The stronger the muscle contraction, the less the sensory information
'Cold Sweat' Direct effect of sympathetic innervation
Pale Skin Constriction of surface blood flow
Dry Skin From poor turgor and constriction of peripheral blood flow.
Erectile Dysfunction Tumescence is a parasympathetic function
Premature Ejaculation The sympathetic system manages ejaculation, if up-regulated it reacts before much sexual tension can accumulate.
Female Anorgasmia Sympathetic dominance prevents or delays sexual arousal and sufficient tensioning in the pelvis and genitalia.
Cold Hands and Feet Blood circulation does not reach the surface
Auto-Immune Disease This is an area that is little understood. One possibility is that adrenal depletion (below) results in decreased modulation of the immune system.
Thyroid Depletion The thyroid regulates the basic 'speed' of metabolism. Because of the complexity of the system, standard measures of thyroid adequacy may be misleading.
Adrenal Depletion Living by the will firsts exhausts the adrenal, which then makes the will paramount because only by the will can one 'get going.' This is also known as 'adrenal fatigue' which for some reason is a very controversial idea to mainstream healthcare, perhaps because it is so widespread it appears normative
Diabetes Mellitus Overuse of cortisol and insulin in stressful and will-based living leads to burnout in the pancreas and up-regulation of insulin receptors.
Difficulty Swallowing Swallowing requires the cooperation and coordination of the voluntary (mouth and tongue) and ventral vagal system ( pharynx, esophagus, sphincters) Will based living may lead to a mismatch between the voluntary and involuntary.
Constipation Sympathetic tone directly slows intestinal function. Western medicine only recognizes constipation when bowel movements fall behind intake and there is an unsustainable accumulation. However, sluggish bowels and slow transit time has many implications for health and emotional functioning.
Fidgeting Fidgeting has long been associated with being 'up-tight.' Possibly simply a result of muscle tension.
Picking and Scratching The picking function of the brain seems stimulated. This is greatly exaggerated when people use chemical stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine.

Psychological Signs of Sympathetic Shift

Manifestation Mechanism
Sense of urgency This is appropriate to an emergency. Sympathetic shift makes all life into an emergency
Heightened sense of threat The capacity of others to harm becomes relevant, rather than their desire to harm.
Inability to relax Relaxation requires the capacity to shift into parasympathetic tone.
Continuous urge to do This is similar to a sense of urgency
Need to control situations In a state of high arousal and flight-or-flight, control (or the illusion of control) reduces anxiety somewhat, but it produces a great deal of interpersonal strife that perpetuates the high arousal.
Seeks to avoid surprises Continuous analysis of what might or could go wrong takes the fun and the present out of everything.
Impatience If others are more relaxed, needless conflict is created
Endgaining When it feels like survival is at stake, 'how' something is done is unimportant
Loss of the 'whole' The loss of the sense of the whole, or 'gestalt'
Irritability This is the tendency to become upset quickly and from seemingly small provocations. Perhaps it derives from a constant physiological state of upset that is masked by a veneer of calm.

'Kindling' occurs where limbic centers especially the amygdala becomes hair trigger. Self protective impulses are distorted, and connection becomes impossible. Rage is usually accompanied by tunnel vision, tight,spastic, clumsy muscles, and dissociation from the body. Physical violence is possible and may be an attempt to overcome the physical symptoms.

Humorlessness Perhaps because laughing involves the face (ventral vagal) and belly.
Difficulty accepting influence from others Others are seen as a threat to one's integrity, not an aid to it.

Things that Contribute to Sympathetic Shift

Contributor Mechanism
Chronic Danger and Fear This is the archetypical cause of sympathetic shift. It is important to remember that in infancy and early childhood (when the template for autonomic functioning is developing) many more things are life-threatening, including abandonment.
Chronic Doing Even without conscious distress, or even when one believes they are succeeding, doing stimulates the sympathetic.
Repressed Anger This is an a relationship that Alexander Lowen dealt with extensively. The connections may be complex. At any rate, holding anger back requires strong muscle contraction (in fact, it is commonly assumed that this muscle contraction 'is' the anger )
Dysfunctional Breathing This is an entire topic in itself, but to put it briefly, 'high in the shoulder' breathing, rapid breathing, shallow breathing, gaspy breathing, cutting off exhalations, and holding the breath after inhalation all contribute to sympathetic shift.
Stimulant Drugs Caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc
Cold Blood is shunted away from skin to preserve heat, and muscles may contract in shivers. It is not an accident that 'cold' is also an adjective used to describe people with little friendliness.
Aerobic Exercise Prolonged strenuous exercise is the deliberate creating of struggle and hypoxia. Sympathetic tone is increased to meet the challenge. The capacity to oxygenate the blood will increase to point, but may plateau quickly due to less than optimal breathing patterns. In twenty minutes endorphins kick in. Endorphins provide good feelings but they due not change the condition of the body.
Chronic Opiate Use The sympathetic system up-regulates to deal with the sedating effects (This is by no means the only dysregulating effect of chronic opiate use)
Chronic Alcohol Use The sympathetic system up-regulates to deal with the sedating effects (This is by no means the only dysregulating effect of chronic alcohol use)
Constant Novelty Though novelty provides excitement that is usually deemed positive, it often provides no pathway or time for discharge of this excitement. Since novelty is a sales strategy also, in modern life we are bombarded by it.
High Stimulation There seems to an escalation in society to get people's attention. Loud sounds, flashing lights, bright lights, and in video quick changes in scenes, and special effects stimulate the sympathetic.
Habit of Judging Judging is focused on the concepts of good or bad, and so keeps life in an adversarial framework.