Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of your nervous system that maintains harmony and a sense of inner equilibrium inside your body. Whatever you feel, your ANS will be feeling, and in fact, anything you feel “automatically” your ANS will be responsible for. For example, your appetite, your mood, your ability to think clearly and even your sexual urges are all controlled by your ANS. Excitement, dread, fear, anger, hunger and sleep all have their home in the ANS. But as you are about to see, the ANS can bring us to heaven as well as make us feel like we are in hell!
It is important to understand that your ANS is divided into two distinctly separate nervous systems, one which stimulates the nerve fibers, the sympathetic nervous system or SNS, and the other which sedates nerve fibers, the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS. It may be easier for you to remember that the SNS is the accelerator and the PNS is the brake.
It is the ANS that gets our body ready to rally for any likely emergency it may face, and this will occur whether the emergency is real or imaginary. It makes no difference really, for your brain cannot tell the difference between a real or imaginary stress. The well-know “fight-or-fight” response as discovered by the famous endocrinologist Dr. Has Selye, is the main system that is stimulated by any potentially stressful evening in the body, the sympathetic nervous system.
When your body is in a healthy state of balance, there is a smooth transition between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems not unlike a considerate and courteous driver who gently accelerates and then gently brakes. It is a pleasure traveling in a vehicle driven by a person who understands the gentle balance between powering a motor car up when required, but has learned equally when to power it down smoothly.
The example I like to explain of a healthy balance is the reaction between a cat and a dog; it illustrates both parts of the ANS and how in the natural world they can work in perfect harmony.
When a cat comes into contact with a dog, its sympathetic nervous system will go on red alert, the cat’s body is fully and automatically mobilized in a fraction of a second. Its eyes open up and the pupils dilate, its fur stands on end and all her muscles straighten and tighten up, it hisses violently and prepares for attack with claws and fangs bared. The cat’s heart rate will have gone up considerably and it is prepared to do battle, all in less than a quarter of a second! If the dog is smart, he will remember the last painful encounter he had and move away. In a flash, the cat’s parasympathetic nervous system will kick in and it will lie down and stretch out and begin licking its fur.
This is a wonderful display of a healthy balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but in reality it is not what happens to humans! Cats don’t drive cars, have marital problems, pay hefty mortgages or have to worry about taxes.
You see, in a healthy and balanced body these two branches of the ANS maintain perfect harmony. The SNS allows us to act and effectively deal with any kind of stress in our lives, its responses sharpen the mind, quicken the pulse, tense our musculature and move blood to the areas we need in order to escape the threat (constrict the blood vessels). But after this danger has passed, the PNS will take over and calm our mind, relax the blood vessels (dilate), decrease the heartbeat, move blood back to our digestive organs, stimulate our immune system and clear away any metabolic wastes like residues of adrenalin and lactic acid.
This is how it should happen, but in reality it doesn’t really occur this way in humans. Tension and action should be followed by relaxation and inaction, a yin and yang balance. In today’s world many of us have to stay on guard and rarely find downtime or “me” time.
If the imbalance becomes chronic it can often lead to a whole variety of stress-related symptoms. And for those with a chronic recurring health condition it can spell one aggravation after another. Many people with “incurable” health problems I’ve seen don’t seem to get it that great health requires great balance, harmony and equilibrium between the body and the mind.