The Autonomic Nervous System

Various subsections make up the human nervous system. important, and popular, section of the human nervous system is the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system, the “self-governing” system, refers to the parts of the nervous system responsible for controlling the non-consciously directed actions of the body such as heartbeat and digestion. This part of the nervous system is comprised of at least two subsections: the sympathetic (fight vs flight vs freeze), and the parasympathetic (rest & restore or rest & digest). The enteric nervous system (the neurons found in the gut) are an extensive and important part of the autonomic system. The enteric system is attracting a lot of attention recently but remains mysterious.

Chronic Sympathetic Activation & Neurodysregulation

Each element of the autonomic nervous system is meant to work with the others to keep the body alive, nourished, and rested. However, neuro dysregulation occurs when our sympathetic system is chronically activated. This activation has a number of root causes including: childhood trauma (ACES), financial stress, pain, lack of sleep, traumatic remembering, as well as other sources of stress such as social media, school, work, etc. These days, the stressful influences in our lives are not frequently life or death situations, but our body is reacting to the same chemical messengers as though it were. When the sympathetic system is activated, it floods the body with cortisol and other stress hormones creating a body posture of fight, flight, or freeze. Modern humans tend to spend a lot of time in sympathetic tone and thereby shut off elements of the parasympathetic system like digestion, immune system functions, thinking, and hormone regulation. All healing takes place in the restorative parasympathetic system, and so chronic stress causes many of the chronic health problems of our time.

So what can you do about it?

Answering this question starts with introspection – what does your body need? You can calm your sympathetic system through deep breathing (belly breathing), meditation, practicing gratitude or loving kindness, humming, chanting, singing, or visualization. You can also calm your stress response by grounding, feeling your feet, being in nature, listening to birdsong, or gardening. The important part is that you find something that is specific to you. Some people go on walks, some ride bikes, some take baths, some cook. Take a second for enquiry with yourself: what activities bring you back to yourself? Noticing when the sympathetic system is activated (your breath is shallow, your heart is racing, or even more subtly you just feel tense) is the first step in moving out of stress and into restoration. Let yourself be aware of the stress in your body, and then consciously choose a technique that is meaningful to you to move out of it.

Here’s some resources to get you started:

Welcome Home by Joel Mckerrow

One by Birdtalker

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown