From the base of our skull to the bottom of our spine lies a paired chain of nerve clumps or bulbs called ganglia. These bulbs-like structures or ganglia lie outside the spine and on either side of the vertebrae. These two chains of nerve bulbs (ganglia) that lie alongside the spine are called the gangliated cord of the sympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for delivering a certain specific message to the rest of the body. This message is to mobilize and prepare for action. It tells the body that there may be a need to fight or flee and that physical exertion may be called for. It is a message that tones, excites and braces the body for action. This is the bodily response commonly called stress.
THE SYMPATHETIC (STRESS) RESPONSE
These nerve bulbs or ganglia have connections with the spinal nerves and affect the voluntary muscles of our body. They increase tension and our ability to quickly respond to demanding situations. When our sympathetic nerves are active, the heart is stimulated, breathing quickens, digestion is inhibited, and blood pressure rises as blood is squeezed out of the abdominal organs and redirected into our brains and muscles. Adrenaline is discharged into our blood system, reinforcing (by its action on all the cells of the body) the whole complex of responses that go to make up the sympathetic (stress) response.
The sympathetic response may have been quite appropriate for creatures living in the wild and facing daily dangers or the need to hunt for a living. Yet for modern men and women this dramatic mobilization of muscle, heart and lung is more often a disability than a blessing. Unable to discharge through vigorous action the energy created, the response cannot run its course. The natural flow of events (running, fighting, even killing) is not usually available to the civilized man and woman. The response is activated and the body is ready to go with no place to go. The process gets stuck and eventually the individual suffers from a condition known as sympatheticotonia, being stuck and trapped in the sympathetic response.
CHRONIC SYMPATHETIC RESPONSE
Muscles tighten and joints become stiff in the chronic sympathetic (stress) response. The heart is continually stimulated and aroused in this condition. Digestion becomes weak, the adrenal glands either keep the body constantly overcharged or else (because of adrenal exhaustion) the body becomes weak, tired and susceptible to inflammation and disease. Anxiety and distress become our constant companions.
Sympatheticotonia (chronic sympathetic stimulation) suggests that those ganglia alongside our spine have been activated and are staying that way. Overcoming stress and its effects must then include an understanding of the structure of the sympathetic nervous system and a way to shut off (or at least greatly diminish) the action of the gangliated cord of nerves that lie next to our spine. Any approach to stress reduction and relaxation should take into account the action and structure of the sympathetic nervous system and some possible way of toning it down.
TONING DOWN THE SYMPATHETIC NERVES
Let us look at one example of a more natural approach to quieting the sympathetic ganglia. Perhaps some of the more important and active of all the ganglia are a pair called the superior cervical ganglia. These are the top pair of ganglia lying in close proximity to the second and third cervical vertebrae at the top of the neck. (See fig. 76) These ganglia have nerve branches accompanying blood vessels into the head and brain. Other branches go to the eyes and to the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. Still more nerve branches emerge from these ganglia and go to the throat and heart. Disturbances in any of these areas can be traced back to the activity of the superior cervical ganglia. The continual action of this one pair of ganglion precludes the possibility of the head, throat and heart of ever getting sufficient rest and relaxation for their proper and healthy functioning. Also because these ganglia lie at the very top of the gangliated cord, they play a large role in turning on the rest of the sympathetic system and thereby stressing the entire body.
Toning down these sympathetic nerve ganglia requires awareness of the tension and stiffness in the neck. Recurring areas of tension and stiffness in the neck and back suggest sympathetic ganglia are active and resist becoming quiet. Manipulation and adjustment of the upper neck and the muscles, ligaments and tendons near the upper portion of the cervical spine sets the process of relaxation and release into motion. Applying pressure and stretching the area around the superior cervical ganglia has a relaxing and restorative effect on the head, throat and heart. As this important nerve center releases, the effects may radiate throughout the body.