In the early stages of WW II, the British Government’s Ministry of Information prepared a series of posters, ready to be distributed if England was invaded. The posters were never required and were later discarded. In 2000, one of these posters was discovered in a second-hand bookshop in England. Under the silhouette of a crown, signifying the British Government, the message on the poster was: “Keep calm and carry on.” Originally intended for the British populace in the event of a wartime invasion, the message on the poster strongly resonated with those beset by the frenetic pace of life in the twenty-first century.
The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two pathways that are integral in experiencing and regulating stress. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activates the rapid escalation of hormones associated with the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response, preparing the body to cope with imminent danger and to ensure survival. Meanwhile, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) acts as a balance, calming the heightened SNS response. One system (SNS) prepares the mind and body to respond to danger; whereas the other (PNS) identifies when the danger (whether real or perceived) has passed and returns the mind and body to a calm state, able to perform tasks.
The vagus nerve, acting like a superhighway between the brain and the gut, has ‘off-ramp’ equivalents to allow hormones to travel rapidly to the throat, lungs, heart, liver, stomach, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and intestines, forming a critical pathway for activating or calming the body. Acute or chronic stress activates the SNS to such an extent that the mind and body remains in a prolonged hypervigilant state, alert and constantly scanning for the next threat or danger. When the body is under sustained stress, the PNS may be unable to sufficiently regulate the heightened stress response and return the mind and body to a calm, productive state. Awareness and regulation of breathing through exercise, meditation and conscious, slow, deep breathing will assist the PNS to access the superhighway and calm the earlier arousal.
The image from the original poster has achieved iconic status with the message transferred to a wide range of merchandise, sold to those who feel overwhelmed by daily stressors and need to be reminded of this message. In recent times, there has been an emphasis upon de-stressing, relaxing, ‘chilling’ – concepts that are all related to removal from a (presumably stressful) situation in order to reduce heightened emotions, including anxiety. In some instances, removal from situations of extreme stress is necessary. Holidays, to allow occasional breaks from work and routine, are helpful for maintaining physical and psychological health. The WW II poster is notable for containing dual messages: remain calm and persevere with the task. This is a powerful combination, still relevant today, for those who are trying to remain healthy and be productive.
© Michele Juratowitch