an introduction to
the autonomic nervous system
**it's a bit of a long read, with tons of information, so get comfortable**
Nervous system health is a relatively new concept when compared to physical and mental health. Our nervous system has a role in everything we do, both consciously and subconsciously, and requires maintenance and care like other facets of our health. It is important to understand what our nervous system is, what it does and how it functions. Without this, our human experience can feel like a mystery ride, or even like something we are a victim of. This knowledge is the first step in the healing journey of working with your nervous system. You can gain insight into your feelings and behaviors while learning how to optimize your mind, relieve tension and effectively manage stress.
WHAT IS THE NERVOUS SYSTEM?
The Nervous System (NS) is our internal communication system. It’s the brain, spinal cord and a vast network of nerves. Fascia, while not included in the ‘standard’ definition of the NS, has an undeniable role in our internal communication. Fascia is a dynamic web-like network that permeates every structure and surrounds every cell in the body…it’s the stuff we’re made of.
WHAT DOES THE NERVOUS SYSTEM DO?
There are 2 branches of the Nervous System: the Somatic Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System.
The Somatic Nervous System is under our conscious control. We employ this branch when we actively decide to move our body or perform a task. This branch is not our focus here.
The branch we are focused on is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS functions outside of our conscious control and governs all the things our bodies do that we don’t have to think about: our heart rate and blood pressure, temperature, breathing, digestion, hormone production and more. It determines which part of our brain is engaged and gives us the capacity to sense, organize and react to signals in our environment. It shapes our experience of stress and danger, as well as pleasure and safety.
HOW DOES THE NERVOUS SYSTEM WORK?
The ANS has 3 different networks of operation, each containing a unique set of emergent properties. We call them: Connection, Mobilization and Overwhelm networks. Important to note here that one network won’t be ‘on’ while the others are ‘off’, rather, one will be dominant. The dominance of one circuit will inhibit some functions of the other circuits, but does not shut the other circuits down completely. The ‘state’ of our ANS is the circuit that is dominating in that moment. Our ANS state determines what part of our brain is engaged, which of our bodily functions we have access to, is the foundation for how we feel and dictates much of our behavior. This is crucial to understand because, so often, we set ourselves and others up for failure by having expectations that are not really an option based on the state of one’s nervous system. In short, our ANS is responsible for how we think, feel, function and act. That’s a lot. It’s worth learning about how something with so much control over us functions, as well as how to best support it.
A key feature of our NS is that it is a bi-directional communication system, meaning it sends information from the brain to the body, as well as from the body to the brain. A key feature of working ‘with’ body and the nervous system is the notion of ‘having a dialogue’ with our NS. Our body and our conscious mind ‘dialogue’ using a language of sensation/feeling and action, ranging from subtle to intense. We can practice tuning into the sensations from our NS, learn to accurately interpret the sensations we experience and perform a supportive action in response. Becoming fluent in the language of the NS is a cornerstone of nervous system health.
Here is an example of a dialogue you have probably had with your NS many times: Your NS senses a lack of hydration and creates the sensation of dryness in your mouth to alert you of this. You recognize and interpret the sensation as thirst. You respond by taking a drink of water. Your NS responds to your action with a sensation of pleasure or relief, signaling to you that your response was supportive.
That ‘conversation’ could have also gone like this: Your NS senses a lack of hydration and creates the sensation of dryness in your mouth to alert you of this. You recognize and interpret the sensation as thirst. You respond by not getting a drink because you are in the middle of something. Later, your mouth is still dry and you start to get a headache. This is a signal that your response was not supportive and your body is becoming more dehydrated. You recognize this and respond now by going and getting that drink. Your NS responds with the alleviation of your headache and the dryness in your mouth.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT NETWORKS FOR?
Each neural network comes with a set of emergent properties which include bodily functions, as well as emotional states. One of the most important things to remember is this: the properties that emerge from every neural platform are a function of autonomic physiology, are outside of our conscious control and are never a failure of effort. Our ANS has no judgement.
The following are properties of the Connection Network. As a reminder, we must be in Connection Network dominance in order to have full access to them: regenerative rest, healthy immune function, balanced hormones, healthy digestion and access to the rational thinking part of our brain. We experience joy and curiosity, can quiet our mind and feel grounded/present. We feel empathy and compassion and can relate to and connect with others. We have a feeling of belonging.
The physiology of Connection in the nervous system can include these autonomic experiences: spontaneous deep breath/sigh/yawn, ease of breathing, decrease in heart rate/intensity of heartbeat, release of myofascial tension, feeling of warmth or comfort with temperature and stomach/intestinal gurgle.
These are properties of Mobilization Network dominance: suppression of the Connection Network while borrowing its energy and activation of the alarm center of the brain. Emotionally, we can experience a broad spectrum. Excess ‘fight energy’ can look like Frustration<Irritation<Anger<Rage, while ‘flight energy’ presents as Concern<Worry<Anxiety<Fear<Panic. Excessive busyness and workaholic tendencies also reside here. Additionally, we find feelings of resistance and displays of poor impulse control.
Our physiology expresses Mobilization Network dominance in these ways: increased cortisol and adrenaline production, shallow/rapid breathing, increased heart rate/intensity of heartbeat, digestive issues, nausea/feelings of discomfort, tensing of myofascial tissue/tight muscles (even when ‘relaxed’), sudden shift or flush of temperature, racing or distracting thoughts and mental fogginess.
Someone with chronic Mobilization Network dominance might experience hyper-vigilance, social anxiety, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, chronic pain, ADD, ADHD, OCD, hormone imbalance, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and symptoms of post traumatic stress.
The Overwhelm Network has the following properties: suppression of the Mobilization and Connection Networks, brain stem activation and all-but-vital system shutdown.
In Overwhelm dominance, you could faint or find yourself holding your breath. You may have a lack of sensation, fatigue, chronic pain and experience severe exhaustion or collapse. Shame, lack of motivation, helplessness and hopelessness reside here.
Someone with chronic Overwhelm dominance could present with the following: depression, dissociation, post traumatic stress, autoimmune issues, neuromuscular dysfunction, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, MS, ME/CFS, IBS, thyroid issues, adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalance.
HOW DOES THE NERVOUS SYSTEM SHIFT BETWEEN NETWORKS?
Our capacity to perceive and evaluate both our internal and external environments is called neuroception. Our NS uses neuroception to autonomically evaluate signals of safety and danger, which results in autonomic responses. Our nervous system is designed to modulate between network dominance in response to both internal and external stimuli with the ultimate goal of returning to and residing in Connection Network dominance. We often hear the term ‘resilience’ used to describe how much someone can handle. Resilience is actually our ability to return to Connection after the experience of Mobilization or Overwhelm. For many different reasons, our system is not always able to make the shift back to Connection Network dominance. Multiple or persistent experiences of this have a cumulative effect in our NS. This results in extended periods of being in Mobilization or Overwhelm and increasingly restricted access to Connection and its benefits. Lucky for us, we can utilize a variety of somatic and neural exercises designed to help the nervous system find its way back to Connection. The goal of Nervous System Restoration is to help you build resilience in your nervous system.
WHAT ARE SOMATIC AND NEURAL EXERCISE?
Somatic and neural exercises use something called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is simply the notion that communication pathways in our brain and body can be strengthened by using them and made weaker by not using them. In the same way that repetitive and intentional movement is used to improve physical fitness, we can increase the vitality of our nervous system using a different kind of repetition and attention. Neural exercises strengthen neural pathways. Somatic exercises are neural exercises that include the body in some way. These are not like fitness exercises using the body, rather practices that teach you to inhabit your body in a way that strengthens the neural pathways leading to well-being.