Do you ever think about how amazing it is that your body is performing essential functions to keep you alive without you having to think about it? The body, particularly the brain, has adapted and evolved, becoming highly skilled at delegating tasks. These automated processes are the ultimate productivity hack for you. While you create art, savor a nourishing meal, or plan your week, your body works tirelessly to fight pathogens, maintain your heartbeat, and transport oxygen to every cell and muscle!
You have probably heard about your nervous system, essentially made up of your brain and the nerves that carry messages to other parts of your body. Yet, there is a lesser-known but equally crucial called the autonomic nervous system, or ANS. This vital network regulates essential functions such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion, seamlessly operating without conscious thought.
Intriguingly, there are methods that can manipulate these automated functions in ways that can be either harmful or beneficial to your well-being, particularly emotional well-being which in turn can affect your physiology. In fact, understanding and learning to consciously influence this life-sustaining system can significantly contribute to longevity.
Below, I will share tips on developing habits and practices that promote emotional balance and resilience via the three main components of the ANS.
WHAT IS THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM?
The autonomic nervous system is composed of two main components: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. Although these two subsystems are often seen as opposing forces, they collaboratively work to maintain the body’s equilibrium. The parasympathetic system, typically associated with rest and digestion, aims to conserve energy and promote relaxation. This includes regulating processes like sleep, digestion, and nutrient absorption. On the other hand, the sympathetic system triggers the famous “fight or flight” response in emergency situations, utilizing the body’s energy rapidly.
For example, when exercising, the sympathetic nervous system is activated to increase your heart rate and breathing. Conversely, once you stop exercising, the parasympathetic nervous system intervenes to normalize your heart rate and breathing. For both systems, communications occur through chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. Within the autonomic system, nerves initially connect at specialized clusters called ganglia before transmitting messages to their target organs. This multi-level communication system enables efficient control.
For a deeper understanding, this system can be subdivided into three distinct parts.
- The Ventral Vagal System – Rest and Connect
The ventral vagal system is often referred to as the “social engagement system.” It’s associated with feelings of safety, connection, and relaxation. This system is active when you feel social and emotional connections with others, promoting a sense of calm and balance. Practices to activate this system include deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness.
- The Sympathetic Nervous System – Fight or Flight
The sympathetic nervous system is often dubbed the “fight or flight” response. It kicks in when you perceive a threat or stressor, preparing your body for action. While this system is crucial for survival, chronic activation can lead to stress-related health issues and emotional dysregulation. Several studies have found that biofeedback can be used to train the autonomic nervous system to become more resilient to stress. This suggests that biofeedback may be a helpful tool for managing stress-related emotional health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
- The Dorsal Vagal System – Freeze and Shutdown
Differing from the sympathetic and ventral vagal systems, the dorsal vagal system is linked to the “freeze” response. When activated, it can lead to feelings of immobilization, disconnection, and emotional shutdown. This system is often associated with trauma and extreme stress.
CONNECTING THE ANS & EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a crucial role in your emotional health, influencing how you respond to stress, interact with others, and manage intense emotions. When you experience an emotion, the ANS is activated and produces physiological changes that are associated with that emotion. The ANS is also involved in the feedback loop between emotions and physiology. For example, consider anxiety: it accelerates your heart rate and breathing, which can, in turn, intensify the feeling of anxiety, particularly as you become conscious of these physical symptoms. However, if you can learn to control your physiological responses to anxiety, you can also learn to control your emotional experience.
Balancing the physical reactions from this system can be done through biofeedback, mindfulness practices, exercise, and stress management. Over time, these efforts can reduce chronic stress activation and promote emotional resilience. Interestingly, a 2022 JAMA study highlighted abnormal communication between the autonomic and central nervous systems in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder.
PRACTICES TO PROMOTE ANS BALANCE
Several lifestyle habits and practices can help balance the ANS components and promote emotional resilience. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing exercises and meditation can help activate the ventral vagal system. Regular exercise and healthy eating habits can help balance the sympathetic system. One way to measure your ANS system balance is to track your heart rate variability (HRV) for healthy levels. Higher HRV levels indicate more resiliency, health, and behavioral flexibility.
The growing research on mind-body therapies, such as yoga and tai chi, emphasizes their role in managing emotional health by promoting relaxation and reducing stress, positively affecting the autonomic nervous system. Developing self-care practices, exploring trauma therapy, and practicing stress reduction techniques can promote dorsal vagal system healing and regulation.
When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which can cause anxiety, fear, restlessness, and racing thoughts. GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, plays a critical role in calming the sympathetic nervous system and fostering relaxation, making it essential for stress management. My supplement, Love My Calm, helps boost mood and restore lacking GABA levels.
Cultivating positive experiences and maintaining a positive mindset can significantly influence the ANS response. A 2022 meta-analysis of studies revealed that positive emotions, such as excitement and contentment, correlate with increased heart rate variability, a marker often linked to improved health and well-being. Additionally, these emotions are associated with a decreased respiratory rate, which contributes to overall health and longevity. The study also found that such emotions lead to increased blood flow to the brain, enhancing cognitive function and mood, while simultaneously reducing muscle tension.
If your autonomic nervous system feels imbalanced, evidenced by frequent responses like lethargy, high stress, or a feeling of being overwhelmed, consider these positive things that could help normalize the response:
- Spend time with loved ones: Spending time with loved ones can help to increase feelings of love, happiness, and contentment.
- Engage in activities that you enjoy: Doing things that you enjoy can help to boost your mood and reduce stress.
- Practice gratitude: Taking the time to appreciate the good things in your life can help to increase feelings of happiness and contentment.
- Meditate or practice mindfulness: Meditation and mindfulness can help to reduce stress and improve your overall emotional well-being.
The ANS plays a pivotal role in maintaining your emotional health and well-being. By understanding and managing its components through mindful practices, regular exercise, and effective stress reduction techniques, one can foster emotional resilience and achieve a balanced state. Adopting such healthy lifestyle habits is key to regulating the ANS and enhancing overall emotional well-being.