Welcome to my blog on the amazing and vital AUTONOMIC nervous system! Research in this area is rapidly growing since the work of Steve Porges, Peter Levine, Barabara Fredrickson and Robert Naviaux (just to name a few). If you are ‘experiencing’ a chronic illness, then you may want to get to know their work. I am providing it in little bits over several blogs. And here is the first.
You may ask, what is that and why share about it? Well, as a practitioner of MINDBODY medicine understanding the ANS is vital and I want to share this information with you hoping it will help you to understand your body better. Knowledge in itself is not only empowering but HEALing. So, have a read and let me know if you have any questions, by either emailing me or following me on social media @khushmark and ask away there.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS), in other words, the nervous system that controls breathing, heart beating, digestion, and so forth is divided into TWO BASIC branches…
1. PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (PNS) also known as the ‘REST AND DIGEST’ system
2. SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (SNS) also known as the ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT’ system
Now the PARASYMPATHETIC branch of the ANS is divided into another two branches too.
- The Parasympathetic, social nervous system also called the ventral vagus complex (VVG) AND also called ‘tend and befriend’
- The Parasympathetic dorsal vagal also known as the FREEZE (this is the equivalent to ‘playing dead’)
Now just hang in there, because you will learn why ‘we’ (as in MINDBODY practitioners) have gone all crazy, talking about so-called ‘self-care”, mindfulness, ‘removing anything that steals your joy’, ‘unfriending’ energy vampires, tai chi, meditation etc. We have not gone crazy, there is science behind it.
This nervous system is such a key area in not only helping gain back health BUT also in preventing ‘dis-ease’.
So let’s start with the parasympathetic branch known as the SOCIAL NERVOUS SYSTEM as it is key from the very day you were ‘made’. This portion of the PNS travels from the brain to the facial muscles and the gut. This section of the PNS supports ‘safety and survival’ through connection and communication.
You may have heard of the word ‘vagal tone’, this is the same nerve that is referred to in the ventral vagus complex. It is the one that we want to be able to ‘regulate’. This is the portion that is nurtured when doing meditation, mindfulness, yoga, forest bathing, soaking in a bath, enjoying a sport (not competitive though) just for the SHEER JOY of it. This branch is all about slowing down and BE-ING. Catch my drift?
This social nervous system also is key in that gut instinct, communication, gestures through facial muscles, voice to express feelings. All the things that a baby will do, when it is first born and incredibly vulnerable. Watch a baby, pull facial expressions, use its voice in order to connect, or look away to disconnect may be due to too much noise. As the child matures, he/she can use words to communicate such as ‘no, don’t do that’, or pull a face to communicate that he/she agrees or not, or moves his/her arms away and so on. This is all about connecting, communicating, bonding, feeling loved, nurtured…in other words ALL GOOD THINGS.
So, in essence, the social nervous system puts a kind of a break or regulates our heart rate, blood pressure, so we feel more at ease, more connected and this is what various mind-body practices feed into. They help connect with this system. Do you connect with your social nervous system regularly?
Imagine someone shouting at you, you have several options….
- fight by shouting back, hitting, kicking, screaming etc.
- flee by removing yourself
- freeze become immobile, numb, frozen etc.
BUT you can also say, ‘can you please stop shouting and I hear that you are not happy right now’…this is the social nervous system in play. It involves being ‘connected’ within not disconnected.
IN HEALTH the social nervous system (also known as the VVG remember) is in charge of the ANS and can inhibit fight, flight and freeze unless it is needed. This branch of the ANS keeps us healthy. Actually, the dance between the various branches is key in healing.
Now the sympathetic nervous system is the system most of us are familiar with. This system kicks in when we need to either deal with ‘stresses’ in daily life such a project deadline, or when we need to fight or run from a threat.
In essence, the sympathetic nervous system is the one that increases all functions that allow us to literally escape the ‘perceived’ threat, this could be an unhappy environment, not just ‘a wild boar in the wild’ (yes our physiology has not changed much since hunter-gatherer days). When this branch of the ANS is triggered….
- adrenaline goes up
- heart rate goes up
- glucose is released and directed to muscles
- digestion shuts down, have you ever had that feeling when you just want to empty your bladder or bowels when you are anxious? That is your body preparing you for ‘flight or fight’ and it is not very helpful if you have a full bladder or bowels at this moment in time
- If your food has not been fully digested then you may feel nauseous…ready for it to come out the upper end
- raise an immune response
- Increase sweating
- focus becomes heightened (so you are more alert for danger also super focused on your escape or fight)
- actually, all senses become hyper-vigilant
These changes are ALL VITAL for health, as they allow us to survive ‘acute danger’ which includes clearing up infections and healing wounds.
However, there are issues when this SNS is chronically stimulated, in other words when there is constant ‘stress’. How YOUR autonomic nervous system responds to the ‘perceived threat’ is the balance between ‘dis-ease’ and health.
Once this ‘threat’ has been ‘escaped’ then the ANS will re-establish balance again between the SNS and the PNS.
So keeping in mind, that this ‘threat’ is short-lived such as….
- a cut whilst gardening
- a bone injury from a fall
- being chased by a dog
- being shouted at by your boss
- having a seasonal flu
What happens if this ‘threat’ or what we call ‘stress’ is continuous? In other words, living in a chronic state of ’fight or flight’ …this can lead to …..
- auto-immune conditions
- fatty liver
- high blood pressure
- stomach ulcers
- recurrent colds, flus, respiratory tract infections
- taking longer to heal
When the nervous system is disturbed and not able to regulate back into ‘safe’ mode, then it tends to stay in ‘fight or flight’ OR goes into FREEZE. This equates to dis-ease.
You may want to read on the work of Steve Porges (founder of the Polyvagal Theory) he describes this as having one foot on the brake pedal and one of the gas pedal.
However, when our survival responses are otherwise over-saturated, our nervous system goes into FREEZE.
I will share about the FREEZE state (Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal State) in my next blog.
To a healthy education!