Your nervous system, our body's electrical wiring, is a wild and wonderful network of nerves that act in different key functions to keep your body moving, responding, sensing, and more. Every second, thousands of messages are zipping around us as we go about our daily business. These nerve signals gather information from every part of our body and orchestrate the right reactions to create the wonderful concerto that is our body and its functions.
Functionally, the nervous system has two main subdivisions: the somatic, or voluntary, component; and the autonomic, or involuntary, component.
The autonomic (involuntary) nervous system regulates certain body processes, such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing – that work without conscious effort. The somatic (voluntary) system consists of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord with muscles and sensory receptors in the skin – associated with our bodies moments via skeletal muscles.
For then sake of this blog, we're keen to hone in on our autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system regulates a variety of our body's processes which take place without conscious effort, such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, and digestion.
It is further divided into the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems.
The two sides of your Autonomic Nervous System
Autonomic (Involuntary) Nervous System
Sympathetic (Fight or Flight)
|Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest)|
Sympathetic (Fight or Flight)
The sympathetic side of the system is the one that produces the fright, fight and flight reaction that was so important in keeping humans alive when they were faced with life threatening situations, or ferocious animals. Basically, when we find ourselves in a life threatening situation, we get a flood of hormones that make us ready for anything! Our heart rate rises, our blood pressure goes up, our muscles are alert and our senses are heightened. In other words our body is primed to fight, or run, for our life.
Fear is not the only thing that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system – any form of stress on the body will have the same effect.
"Anxiety, bereavement, lack of sleep, relationship worries, money trouble, any form of illness, over training and pressure at work are just a few of the things that will increase activity in the sympathetic nervous system."
Sadly, few of us live lives free of stress, so for many of us, our sympathetic nervous system is highly active.
Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest)
Hint: we need more of this one
The parasympathetic nervous system is the other side of the coin. When the parasympathetic system is stimulated, muscles become less tense while the heart rate and blood pressure lower. The parasympathetic system cancels out the sympathetic system and has a calming effect on the body.
The modern world and the sympathetic takeover
In today’s times, the sympathetic nervous system is working harder because we, as a society, are increasingly more stressed and fatigued. This state of upset in the system can lead to poor eating habits, poor sleep, and decreased concentration.
Ideally, these two systems balance each other so that for every fight and flight moment there is a calming, settling time afterwards and the body comes back into equilibrium. Unfortunately, modern life with its stresses and pressure has a tendency to cause a lot more ‘fight and flight' responses with fewer moments of calm to allow us to find balance.
"This results in a gradual dominance of the sympathetic, putting us at risk of health issues like raised blood pressure, raised heart rate, increased muscle tension, digestive problems, headaches and poor sleep patterns."
In addition, other modern issues such as the over stimulation of light (our iPhone pacifier before bed), a high-caffeine intake or work stress and pressure, can cause the body to think it needs to be prepared to FIGHT, bringing us into a sympathetic state more regularly than we need to be. But alas, having that document done before its 5pm deadline is not a matter of life or death - seriously.
It can also affect mood and emotional responses, thereby affecting emotional and psychological well-being.
And sure, at times it’s great to find that fire to get things done and to pump through a busy day – but we need to learn when to let this go.
"The good news is that although 'involuntary', we can manipulate our parasympathetic nervous system. Starting with a deep breath!"
The breath and the parasympathetic nervous system
Yoga and breath practices have a major affect on our parasympathetic nervous system - and you don’t need to be a seasoned meditator, or be busting out handstands on the edge of a cliff-face for the gram. It is as simple as taking a full and conscious breath.
"Diaphragmatic breathing (or deep breathing) allows the body to trade more incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide."
This causes the heart rate to slow, brings our blood pressure down, clears our mind and relaxes our muscles. It’s the single most important thing we can do to offset everyday stress.
Using your diaphragm also activates your vagus nerve, which is the nerve in your body that triggers your body’s relaxation response and lowers the body’s stress response.
Some people make time every day to practice diaphragmatic breathing as part of a yoga or mindfulness-meditation routine. Others only take a really deep breath anytime they catch themselves feeling stressed or need to relieve some frustration. All of these applications of diaphragmatic breathing can reap huge benefits.
If you're new to diaphragmatic breathing, here are a few tips to set up your own practice at home.
- Begin is savasana (laying on your back) with your hands on your belly, or down by your sides.
- Take a moment and leave any thought that doesn't belong with you in that moment.
- Sweep those thoughts outside of the room. Leave your past and your future, stay right here in the present.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Bring all your awareness to your breathing, breathing through the nose. Notice if your breathing is shallow or noisy. Is your inhalation the same length as your exhalation?
- Bring your focus to the space between your nostrils. Feel the coolness of the inhale, the warmth of the exhale. By focusing here, you’re starting to turn inside.
- The idea here is to slide into awareness of the breath. Gently. No forcing. No pushing. Just remain present to the coming and going of the breath. When the mind wanders off to work, family or responsibilities, simply bring it back to the breath.
- Now we’re going to make sure we’re breathing completely from our diaphragm.
- First, soften the belly – consciously release any tension you may be holding there. Then, put your right hand on your abdomen and put your left hand on your chest.
- To breathe diaphragmatically, your right hand should be moving up and down to that your abdomen naturally extends out a bit on the inhale and goes back down on the exhale. Your left hand should be relatively still. Take 3-5 cycles of breath.
- If only your left hand is moving, you’re chest-breathing, which means you're only bringing in one-third to one-half of the oxygen you’d be getting from breathing through your diaphragm.
If you’re not getting it today, that is OK. Just keep trying. Every inhale brings in new energy, oxygen, or life force. Every exhale releases toxins, carbon dioxide and the tensions of the day.
By using these techniques to facilitate relaxation, we can learn to switch on our parasympathetic nervous system to feel calm, stable and to reduce our stress responses.
And breathe. Your breath is your anchor.