Ever found yourself in a scary situation and noticed that things were happening in your body you couldn’t quite explain? Well, those physiological responses are your brain’s way of protecting you when it believes that you are in danger.
Our brain is a pretty complex organ – that’s putting it lightly – and it has a ton of responsibilities, from regulating our bodily functions to keeping us safe in the midst of perceived danger. Learning how our autonomic nervous system works can give us more insight into how we can begin re-training our brains to better recognize danger and deal with stress and anxiety.
The Brain and It’s Person
Anxiety – we all experience it at varying levels. It’s normal until it’s not. And when it’s not, it’s as if a gas pedal is being pushed to get us riled up so that we can be alert and be prepared for ALL of the worst possible outcomes.
Your brain responds to this threat by activating the autonomic nervous system. Remember, your brain’s most important job is to protect its person – YOU! So it’s constantly scanning for threats and when it perceives one, it will activate the autonomic nervous system.
Your autonomic nervous system regulates your body’s processes including organ function, breathing, sweating, and even pupil dilation. The two parts we will focus on are the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
The Brain and It’s Duty to Protect
So back to the engine analogy – once the gas pedal is pushed the autonomic nervous system activates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare you for fight or flight. The following happens once the sympathetic nervous system has been activated for protection in response to danger:
- Pupils Dilate
- Saliva production is inhibited (dry mouth)
- Dilates bronchi
- Accelerates heart
- Epinephrine or norepinephrine release is stimulated (prepares you to run or fight)
- Glucose release is stimulated (gives you the energy needed to fight or flight)
- Inhibits stomach, pancreas and intestinal production
- Inhibits urination
Overriding the Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system’s responses are very helpful, assuming there is actual danger. But what happens when there is not real danger, only anticipated danger? You know, things that are scary but not necessarily dangerous like public speaking, taking a big exam, flying for the first time or the first day of a new job? How do you begin to hit the breaks to send a message to your brain and body that you are actually safe?
Well, that’s a job for the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s job is just the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system’s job. It’s responsible for relaxation. Let’s take a look at what happens in the body once it has been activated:
- Pupils constrict
- Saliva and tear production is stimulated
- Bronchi constrict
- Heart rate is slowed
- Stomach, pancreas and intestines are stimulated
- Urination is stimulated
Put simply, your body begins to exhale, release and return to its homeostasis. But in order to get there, you must override the sympathetic response and there are a variety of ways to do so. Breathwork is a wonderful technique to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.