Getting to know your autonomic nervous system: how the body rests and digests.

Some time ago we introduced a fairly essential part of our bodies and brains, namely our autonomic nervous system. Which simply put is a part of the peripheral nervous system and can be divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. It works automatically – which means that we don’t really control it – and takes care of a lot of bodily functions such as our breath and heart rate. In the last post we focused on the sympathetic part, the fight or flight-system, as it’s sometimes called. Today we’ll instead focus on that soothing part of it all, the one that helps us relax and recover. Our parasympathetic nervous system.

Reminder: we need both parts. At a lot of times it’s absolutely essential to be able to switch into fight-or-flight-mode. We need sympathetic activation to be able to perform, to focus, and yes, sometimes even to escape real danger.

Second reminder: the body usually takes care of the switch between activation and relaxation all by itself. It’s pretty fantastic that way, saving us a lot of trouble of having to be constantly aware of what bodily functions to switch on in order to recover or to run.

Things can however get a little out of hand. If we, for example, find ourselves in a life situation where we’re constantly going on full speed, with a highly demanding work and our free time packed with activities (may they be social, physical, cognitive or otherwise). If we don’t allow any time to relax and unwind, chances are your sympathetic nervous system will be going into overdrive. So this is what most researchers think: evolutionary we’re designed to go into bursts of sympathetic activation, These bursts do however need to be weighed up by periods of recovery. When the danger has passed and we’ve been highly focused and activated, we need to find a quiet bush and chill out. As long as we get these periods of rest we can deal with quite a bit. One problem for a lot of people these days, though, is that we don’t really plan for these periods of rest, sometimes up until the point where we – if we were to give ourselves proper recovery – don’t even remember how to do it. The body goes into a habit of always being a little tense and our minds into a habit of always being in ”on”-mode. Some long-term risks of this being less resources to take care of our digestive system, immune system and memory encoding. Not to mention evolving pain from having had tense muscles for an extended period of time.

So how do we tap into our parasympathetic nervous systems then? Even though the autonomic nervous system is just that: autonomic, there are ways we can voluntarily encourage parasympathetic activation.

1.     One of the few bodily functions that are both automatic and voluntary is our breath (the other two are blinking and swallowing). The breath is usually operated by the autonomic nervous system, however, when we become aware of our breath and start breathing consciously, other parts of the brain takes over. To put it simply, a slow, steady breath signals to the body and brain that all is calm, that danger has passed and that it’s time to recover. Time to recover = parasympathetic activation.

2.     Once you have the breathing thing down, you might as well incorporate the whole body into your relaxation mission. While muscles tense up as long as there’s perceived danger nearby (making us ready to fight or flee), consciously relaxing our muscles signals that we’re safe, that it’s okay to relax. This is exactly what we do in yin yoga practice; we go into the deep poses, stay there and consciously work on relaxing the muscles, letting go of tension, telling the body that we’re safe.

3.     As long as the body and brain think that there’s something dodgy going on it will try to prepare itself, which makes absolute sense. It would be evolutionary plain stupid to chill out if there was a potential threat lurking around nearby. Tricky thing about this though is that our brain cannot always tell the difference between real danger and imagined danger. Which means that just the mere thought about something bad happening can trigger sympathetic activation, however safe and calm our actual surrounding is at that given moment. Therefor the practice of not reacting to our thoughts, even when they seem scary, is an important aspect of allowing our body to switch into relaxation and recovery mode. But more on how to actually do this in a later blog post. Suffice to say that we need to work both with our body and mind to help increase our parasympathetic activation.