Understanding your nervous system is a game changer.
For stress management.
For productivity and performance.
For weight loss
For focus and creativity.
For pretty much anything we seek to do or be or achieve in our lives - having your nervous system working with you (not against you) is paramount.
So what is the nervous system?
The nervous system comprises your brain, your spinal cord and all of the other nerves which branch out from that and speak to all of our other bodily systems and organs. The nervous system facilitates a two way message delivery process; for the brain to speak to the body and the body to speak to the brain.
The central nervous system is controllable - that’s the part which is governed by your conscious thinking mind. For instance, you see a glass of water on the table, you notice you are thirsty, you pick it up and drink it. A conscious action driven by a conscious thought.
The autonomic nervous system, or “ANS”, is controlled by your subconscious mind and is thought to be largely beyond the control of our conscious instruction. A car pulls out in front of us and before we even have time to think ‘I might crash’, the body has taken over and your foot is on the brake. That’s the magic of the ANS.
The ANS has two branches, or “states”. One of these is the sympathetic nervous system (“SNS”), also known as the “fight/flight/freeze” state and the parasympathetic nervous system (“PNS”), often referred to as the “rest and digest” state, or what I like to call “stay and play”.
At a very simplistic level, which state we are in is dependent on the environment in which we are operating and our perception of that environment, at a subconscious level. The latter is an important point. Because two humans can be in exactly the same context physically however experience very different reactions at the level of the nervous system. This leads to two very different physiological states... and thus consequences.
The two branches of the autonomic (automatic) nervous system
When the PNS branch of the nervous system is dominant, we generally experience feelings of contentment and ease. We can access rational, logical thinking, creativity, we feel calm and we find it much easier to engage in social connection (read: we can communicate better). At a physiological level, our body can undertake cellular restoration processes and can direct plenty of energy to supporting digestion and the immune system.
When the SNS branch of the nervous system is activated, our body is generally reacting to a cocktail of stress hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol. This is to give us the fuel we need to run or fight in the face of perceived danger. When we are mobilised in this way, our body uses primarily glucose for fuel, which it extracts from stores in the liver and muscles, and uses this to give us the energy we need to fire said muscles - to run, to resist, to lift, throw, etc. Our blood pressure increases, and the blood supply moves to mainly feed our large muscle groups. What we don’t need in those moments of danger is good digestion, good immune response or a reproductive system that is functioning well. Our beautiful nutrient filled blood is diverted away from those things, because our body prioritises escaping the immediate threat.
Let’s shift focus to what our mental faculties might be doing in this SNS state - we certainly don’t need healthy social connection, nor creativity or logical reasoning. We are stressed, tense and focused only on surviving our immediate threat. We cannot multi-task - this would threaten our survival. Naturally, the opposite is true when we are in the PNS state, because we are not so focused on survival and therefore have the capacity to extend our mental and emotional resources toward innovative, expansive thinking and creating and sustaining meaningful social connections.
Why we strive to survive
You may wonder why survival is such a prominent theme here. The reason is, that our nervous systems have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in the context of hunter-gatherer societies. Our ancestors literally needed to observe and avoid threats in their environment to survive - wild animals, rival and unfriendly tribes, the elements of Mother Nature like fire and flood. And only those with the nervous systems capable of dealing with these threats appropriately survived and passed on their DNA. As modern humans, we’ve only been facing the threat of demanding bosses, performance reviews, overflowing email inboxes and the like for a very short time relative to evolutionary history. But our nervous system still deals with these perceived threats in exactly the same way as it would any life-threatening event. We don't feel safe, so we mobilise.
It is so important to gain a better understanding of how your nervous system responds to your environment and dial back that stress response on a conscious level. That way, you can work toward spending most of your time in a rest and restore state, and less time with those precious nutrients ignoring your vital longevity and reproductive processes. This can be true even in the presence of modern stressors. It's all about changing our perception, which is key to achieving long term health and avoiding burnout (sustained over-stimulation of the nervous system) and other symptoms of overwork.
Here's what you can do
Remedying an overactive fight or flight response begins with creating awareness over what is happening in your body. How would one know which branch of the ANS is activated? There is one very simple giveaway - the breath. Someone in a PNS state will be breathing deeper into the diaphragm, breathing slower and more likely through the nose. Someone who is activated and in a SNS or stress state, will be breathing in a more sharp and shallow fashion high up in the chest, and often via the mouth.
If you have established that your SNS is more active than it should be, breathwork is one of the most powerful tools you can use to start reversing this. There are a huge number of resources available to support you in using breathwork to manage stress. If you're new to this idea, you can check out a short video I made on how to start with breathwork here:
Depending on the current source of the stressors on your nervous system and any past history of trauma that may be present, there are many pathways you can take in terms of getting back in the driver’s seat. This may include therapeutic processes such as coaching, counselling, hypnotherapy or other complementary therapies to address the mindset, physical therapies to restore calm to the body, or a combination of both.
I will share more tips around what activities you can engage in to take back control and spend more time in that restorative PNS state in a separate resource. You can begin giving your body and mind the rest they deserve right in your own home - I’ll give you a head start on the how soon!
Further (advanced) reading:
The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe, Stephen W Porges
The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles, Dr Bruce Lipton
[EDIT: Updated to remove a link to a programme that is no longer available. To learn more about how to work with Anne on tuning-up your nervous system, schedule a free Power Hour session.]