What Is The Autonomic Nervous System And Can We Control It?

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Can you control your autonomic nervous system?

This is a question I have never asked myself because I didn’t even consider it. I didn’t think it was possible to control the processes that happen subconsciously within my body, because it sounds like something quite futuristic to me!

Think about it for a moment:

  • Are you consciously telling yourself to breath in and out throughout the day?
  • Do you, yourself, register at the exact moment when you need to blink?
  • When you are falling, do you quickly tell yourself to put your hands out in front of you to brace your fall?
  • Do you tell yourself to move your hand when you have accidentally placed it on a hot stove top?
  • More still, when you find yourself in a stressful situation, do you tell the necessary glands to start secreting hormones to help you respond adequately?

Obviously the answer is no. We don’t control much of our bodies it seems. While conducting research on the autonomic nervous system, I was in awe at the intricacy of it all. The network of hormones, signals, vessels, reflexes and responses are largely out of our control and thank goodness for that because we are not even aware of just how much is actually going on “behind the scenes”.

We barely have to think at all because our brains react so quickly. When our hand is on a stove top, we have already quickly removed it at just a hint of heat. There is no way we would ever be able to consciously control every last aspect of our bodies. It is so intricately put together and functions so incredibly quick and smart that it would blow your mind.

However, when it comes to certain life experiences, such as dealing with stress, anxiety and depression, it is possible to stimulate certain nerves to get the autonomic nervous system to respond and counteract those negative feelings.

What Is The Autonomic Nervous System?

The autonomic nervous system is a division of the peripheral nervous system that controls the function of internal organs. The peripheral nervous system is part of the nervous system that consists of nerves on the outside of the brain and spinal cord. It’s main function is to connect the central nervous system to its limbs and organs, acting as a communicator that enables signals to be sent between the brain and extremities.

Human body nervous system

The autonomic nervous system is a control system that functions unconsciously to control and regulate things such as:

  • heart rate
  • breathing
  • digestion
  • pupillary response (the constriction and dilation of your pupils)
  • urination
  • defecation
  • reflexes
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • swallowing
  • vomiting
  • sexual arousal
  • It is also a major component in the fight or flight response.

We are all somewhat familiar with the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon as a physiological response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat. The adrenal gland is activated in a stressful situation releasing hormones that trigger cortisol. This increases blood pressure, blood sugar and turns fatty acids into available energy. The skin pales or flushes, digestion slows down and blood vessels dilate. These changes give the body increased strength and energy by temporarily shutting down blood supply to unnecessary organs.

The autonomic nervous system is controlled and regulated by the hypothalamus. This is a small portion of the brain whose most important function is to link the nervous system to the endocrine system (a collection of glands that secrete hormones directly into the circulatory system to be carried to direct organs) via the pituitary gland. (Fun fact: the pituitary gland is an endocrine gland the size of a pea, weighing 0.5 grams!) The hypothalamus synthesises and secretes hormones which in turn either stimulate or inhibit secretion of pituitary gland hormones. Overall, it controls body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue and sleep.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches, that being; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the rest and digest, or feed and breed response.

They have been found to function in opposition to one another; the former functions as the accelerator, while the latter functions as a brake. The former is a quick response mobilising system, while the latter is a slowly activated dampening system. While the sympathetic nervous system would be responsible for raising blood pressure, the parasympathetic would be responsible for bringing this blood pressure down. The two work together to ensure that the body functions properly in varying situations. It is important that these two systems work in opposition to each other because it would be unhealthy for your body to stay in a state of stress with high blood pressure, without the parasympathetic side to bring it down and regulate it.

The autonomic nervous system can further be divided into sensory and motor subsystems. The sensory neurons are responsible for bringing information in, while the motor neurons are responsible for carrying out action.

Can We Control The Nervous System?

control brain
This all leads to the big question: Can we control it?

With the above explanation, I was surprised to learn just how intricate and carefully intertwined the entire system is. We are not even aware of a fraction of the tasks and functions our brains are performing through our nervous system.

It is possible however, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember I mentioned earlier that this system is the “brake” or “dampener” of the nervous system? It works to relax and calm you. Activating this wing of the nervous system will result in a decrease in stress, reducing of blood pressure, strengthening of the immune system and a lifting of mood.

The sympathetic nervous system is a process that quickly and efficiently responds to stressful situations. It sends alarm signals to the brain to get the body to respond in a series of ways. It is activated when you are upset, irritated, saddened or worried.

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart beats faster and stronger, your pupils dilate to get in more light and see better, and you begin to sweat as your body tries to cool itself. This is not something that you want to activate on your own because with these responses, come some other very serious effects of long-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

For example, because this system responds to stress, it shuts down certain functions temporarily that it feels the body does not need at that moment. For example, it shuts down peristalsis, which is why irritable bowel syndrome, constipation and diarrhea are a common occurrence in stressful situations. It weakens the immune system, as all the body’s energy needs to be sent elsewhere to respond. It hardens arteries and increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. This explains why constant stress and anxiety cause you to catch colds and flu easily!

Therefore, this is not something that you want to learn how to activate because it can actually cause your body harm over an extended period of time. However, it is unfortunate that due to our everyday stresses, anxieties and constant worrying, we are in fact activating this system far too much! This is why it is important to learn ways to activate the opposite side – the parasympathetic nervous system – as a counterbalance to this reaction.

Interestingly enough, you are probably already doing many of these exercises, activating your parasympathetic nervous system, without even knowing it. Relaxation plays a significant role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system because it sends signals to the “alarm centres” in your brain, letting them know that your body is not under threat, despite the stress you may be experiencing. Here are some ways to actively stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and thus, reduce stress levels.

Breathing

Taking deep, full breaths is one method that you can try.
This is done by inhaling to full your lungs, holding this breath for a second and then exhaling slowly. Do this for about 60 seconds.

Relaxation

A common method that people adopt is consciously relaxing their tongue, eyes and diaphragm and imagining themselves in a relaxing or peaceful environment. That might be picturing yourself lying on a tropical island somewhere listening to the ocean. It also helps to feel everything drain out of you and sink deep into the earth.

You can feel it working already right?

synapses autoimmune

Regulate Your Heart Rate

The HeartMath Institute found ways to influence the heartrate which overall improves physical health. This is done by breathing in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are the same duration. For example, breathe in for four counts and out for four counts. While doing this, imagine that this breathing is taking place around the heart area and imagine emotions of love or gratitude.

By doing this, you are increasing and harmonising natural changes in the interval between heart beats.

Mindfulness of the Body

You can activate the parasympathetic nervous system by doing yoga or meditating. By being attentive to physical sensations, such as your breathe around your outer nostrils or upper lip, you are working to calm and relax yourself.

Yawning is another method of activating this system!

Positive Emotion

This one may be a little difficult because when you are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, it is difficult to start thinking and feeling positive emotions into being. However, any positive emotion that comes to you in a relaxed manner will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. These emotions include gratitude, love, kindness, contentment and tranquillity.

Playing with the Upper Lip

Weird, I know. But listen to this:
It has been found that adults can comfort themselves by playing with their lips. By playing with your lips and making sounds, it triggers emotions associated with nursing, eating and thumb-sucking. This stimulates salivation which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system and it also merely distracts you in a moment of stress or anxiety.

The Vagus Nerve

You can also control stress and depression through stimulating your vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is a mind-body connection between your emotions and instincts. This nerve stretches from the brainstem to the belly and spreads fibres to the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and glands that produce anti-stress hormones.
You can stimulate this nerve to control stress and anxiety by doing the following:

Immerse your face in cold water. This triggers the diving reflex which is commonly found in babies. It is the body’s physiological response to submersion in cold water by selectively shutting down parts of the body in order to conserve energy for survival. Upon immediate contact of one’s face with cold water, the human heart rate slows down to as much as 10 and 25%.

Exhale against a closed airway. This is known as the Valsalva manoeuvre and is done by closing one’s mouth, pinching one’s nose and trying to exhale as though breathing into a balloon. This increases the parasympathetic activity to the heart. The pressure from holding one’s breath and pushing down tells one’s body not to send any blood to the heart for that short period of time until released.

Sing. Yes! Singing makes us feel relaxed and happy.

nervous system

Overall, the autonomic nervous system is a very delicate and incredible system that works to keep your body functioning efficiently. The sympathetic nervous system activates quick responses to stress and threat. Everyday life can result in high levels of stress and anxiety which causes the sympathetic nervous system to become over stimulated. This leads to harmful effects on the body.

The parasympathetic nervous system works to calm and relax the body. This is something that we have a fair amount of control over and it can be activated by various easy methods that help us to relax and unwind.

Living in the fast paced and quick-fire nature of our current world, it is worth learning how to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system to learn how to relax and deal with stress, rather than leaving your body in a constant state of trying to fight threat.

Here’s a fun fact for you to try sometime soon: If you are feeling nervous about something, like a job interview, a big presentation or a speech, chew gum before you go in. By chewing gum, you will trick your brain into thinking that it is not facing stress or a threat because you would not be eating during a stressful situation.

So what do you think? Are you somebody that gets very stressed easily? Or do you have your parasympathetic nervous system waxed? We would love to hear from you.

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