Our Human Body Systems Performing MAGIC!Oct 21, 2022
Stress and Our Autonomic Nervous System
The human body is awesome. It's magic! Most of us can choose if, when, where, how, and why to use it. And, there are systems that automatically work for us without our instruction throughout our lives.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and many other functions that allow us to not only survive, but to THRIVE. It's easy to take this all for granted.
Let’s take a deeper look at how magic is performed in our bodies.
The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that most of us learned about in high school Health Class is that of a two-part system:
- Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is more activating and can be triggered by stress to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. The burst of cortisol might cause our hands to sweat, our voice to tremble (or cough), and our stomach flutter and clinch as our pulse rate and blood pressure rise. These are the physical manifestations of anxiety. Sometimes these physical manifestations are intense and sometimes simply experienced as an uneasiness or what I personally refer to a "low rumble of discontent".
- Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the counterbalance to our SNS and supports health, growth, and restoration. When our brain believes we are safe, we are able to pause, slow down, and allow our systems to reboot. Restorative yoga is a weekly scheduled treat for my PNS.
The Vagus Nerve
Our vagus (pneumogastric nerve)1 is difficult to track. We do know that it is the longest nerve in the ANS which extends throughout our thorax (esophagus, trachea, heart, and lungs; respiration and circulation) to the abdomen (stomach, pancreas, liver, kidneys, small intestine, and portion of large intestine; digestion and elimination).
The vagus nerve can be very powerful, especially when we are feeling stress:
- Triggers the parasympathetic response.
- Communicates from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain.
Dr. J. Eric Vance, MD, writes in Can We Prescribe Resilience? 2 that we are in a constant state of surveillance for risk, safety, threats, and opportunities to respond. Dr Vance refers to this process as “neuroception.”
Early in the pandemic, I recall reading an article that explained our exhaustive level of anxiety with the analogy of a dog on guard in your garden ever vigilant for any creature (friend of foe) breaking the boundaries of our sanctuary (physical space) and serenity (emotional space). The creature could be friend, foe, or a harmless visitor. All create a heightened sense of threat.
Fortunately, we can practise calming techniques that send a signal from our body to our brain that we are safe.
I have referred to restorative yoga and we have learned more about the power of meditation over the past few years. In my next blog, I will share more grounding techniques that can be used immediately and on the spot to activate your parasympathetic responses. No scheduled event necessary.
In the meantime, consider how you experience stress and anxiety. Where does it show up in your body? Have you given it a name?
And, give your body a warm hug of gratitude for all its powers to heal, be well, and support us in being awesome at any age.
References and Resources
- Vagus Nerve (pneumogastric nerve), Wikipedia
- Can We Prescribe Resilience,Dr. J. Eric Vance, MD, Psychiatric Times, May 2018
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