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The Autonomic Nervous System & Stroke

Updated: May 24, 2023

When I have worked with stroke patients in the past, one of the things they all have in common is that their road to recovery is very different.

Whether it is from the severity of their episode, their age, who they were before the stroke, etc. And typically, the doctor at the helm of treatment has the plan for recovery under control and all of the people and therapies put in place.

What I have also experienced is the one element they all tend to leave out, is the importance of breath to the health and recovery of their patient.

Let's talk about what typically happens in a stroke, in layman's terms: A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood (and oxygen) it needs, so it and brain cells die.

Quite often it is labeled a "stress related" occurrence. So, let's talk about stress...we all have it, right? Then, it must boil down to how we "handle" it. And chances are, if you had a stroke then the previous mode of handling stress was not as effective as you may have thought. This is not about looking back in shame, it is about understanding that we must go forward with a different foundation.

Get a little "sciency" with me about how your body receives stress physiologically.

Let's say you endure a stressor, big or small, the body typically responds with the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. When it recruits the survival mechanism it pulls blood supply from nourishing the body and puts it into the arms/finger and legs/feet in order to prepare the body to fight or run from the stress stimulus (see tigers and bears.)

It also dumps a highly sticky sugary component into the blood preparing it to clot, in case you get hurt first (in your bodies perceived upcoming fight) and it shortens your breath to the top of the lungs while dumping adrenaline into the system, so there is the ability for you run away, utilize all of your power to fight or lift that VW bug off of a child.

*Note: We are only meant to be in this system for about 3 minutes a day. Since there are no more bears and tigers chasing us (oh my!) we now respond to deadlines, traffic, children, bosses (the list goes on) as if they were the bears and tigers of our ancestors' past.

The best part about this is, we have the remedy inside of us and accessible at all times... are you ready for this? It's the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which is easily stimulated and sustained by our breath!!! The key is DEEP belly breathing, slowing the breath down, letting it fill all the way down to the bottom lobe of the lungs. When you get into the parasympathetic nervous system, it then replenishes the blood flow back to the organs and brain. This breath done as practice, will allow you to address these stressors that really aren't trying to kill you and will help you stay in a calm space while you meet the deadlines and sit in traffic with more ease.

Also, and more importantly, during your stroke recovery while you are being asked to move in ways by your therapists that will surely be stressful, you can bring this breathing technique with you to start the journey to recovery utilizing the new tool in your toolbox! If you are interested in being guided through and understanding more about this breath, I am available for virtual sessions. Contact me here.


Psychoneuroimmunologist and Movement Specialist



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