The Autonomic Nervous System

We live in a time where the pace of life continues to accelerate. Pressure to perform, work demands, cultural and societal pressures, and the pressure we put on ourselves. Also, the many global events that deeply affect us. All this, alongside the fact that our personal lives are not free from setbacks or intense events.
All of this is taxing on our nervous system.

Our autonomic nervous system is highly complex and responsible for all unconscious processes of the body; digestion, respiration, heart rate, body temperature, etc., and it is interconnected with everything, including your endocrine system, brain, organs, brain and al other systems. It reacts to internal and external stimuli and processes them unconsciously. The nervous system responds to things like food, alcohol, caffeine, but also to the environment, news images, thrilling movies, etc., and to what you tell yourself and what you believe.

It consists of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

The sympathetic is for mobilization, action, and movement, but also for fighting or fleeing in response to a life-threatening situation. When the sympathetic is activated, you’re “on”: this comes with various physiological reactions in the body. Increased heart rate and respiration, heightened senses.

You are now ready to save yourself from a life-threatening situation, but you don’t recover in this state; cells do not regenerate, there’s no room for healing. This response is meant for species survival and was useful in ancient times. Unfortunately, this function often hinders us in modern times. Many people live with an overactive sympathetic system when there’s no life-threatening situation. This is highly taxing on our system, vital functions, and sense of well-being. Your system is racing. You feel restless, find it hard to sit still, meditation is difficult, you talk fast, your thoughts scatter. At a surface level, such a person might seem to have a lot of energy and often is perceived that way because there’s little connection with the body, but underlying, the system can be quite exhausted, with overall restlessness as a central theme. This restlessness is often mistaken for energy. If this persists for too long, you become completely overwhelmed or the parasympathetic kicks in.

The parasympathetic is for rest and recovery but also functional freeze. The parasympathetic runs through the vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, through the brain to all organs and divides into two parts: the dorsal vagus and the ventral vagus. The ventral vagus is also called the social engagement system and is responsible for rest, engagement, and connection, when activated and well developed. When the ventral vagus is activated, we experience a sense of well-being and safety. The body can recover and heal.

The dorsal vagus reacts to unsafety. Through the dorsal vagus, you enter functional freeze/immobilization, which is an inherent protection to safeguard your vital functions when you’re in the “on” state for too long. But it’s certainly not a pleasant state. This freeze activates when the nervous system can’t process the impact. In this state, you cannot connect with yourself or your surroundings. It’s a sort of dissociative state, alternating with a stalled or frozen fight-and-flight dynamic. It’s as if the restlessness is encapsulated, ready to be triggered at any moment. In the eyes of these people, you might sometimes perceive a certain absence or detachment. It feels like you’re flattened. You don’t feel the intensity of the raging nervous system, but neither do you feel rest. It’s like you’re not fully present in life anymore. This group of people often manages to meditate. They experience exhaustion or low energy, but rest won’t help here. To get out of this mode, positive tension is needed. Action, movement, and connection with the environment, but this can be very daunting for this group. Alternately, dissociation combined with fight-or-flight tendencies is experienced here. It can also be experienced as a lingering resistance, suppressed anger, and hostility.
In summary, we have three options:

The strongly activated sympathetic, the “on” state. Activates when you experience unsafety. You’re in a state of readiness to fight or flee. But this system is also active in performing daily tasks. Getting up, exercising, etc.
The activated ventral state (this one is ideal) feels very pleasant and connected. Your heart is open here. Can only activate in a feeling of safety. You feel firm and stable, experience pleasure, and are present in the NOW.
The strongly activated dorsal state, the “off” state: activates when the body experiences extreme danger or threat. The body reacts by immobilizing, freezing, dissociating, or becoming frozen. But this system is also active during rest, recovery, digestion, relaxation, and sleep.

After reading the above, you’ll understand that a healthy nervous system is an absolute necessity to feel good.
Many people have a disrupted nervous system, and many symptoms are closely related to this: Headaches, back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, swallowing problems, hoarse voice, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, digestive problems, chronic fatigue, migraines, concentration disorders, difficulty listening or processing information, difficulty with comprehension, tics, skin problems, forgetfulness, sleep problems, depression, negative self-image, vague feelings, heartburn, chronic inflammation, and other chronic complaints, etc. But also anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, palpitations, breathing problems, deep loneliness, feeling chased, stress symptoms, anger, hostility, restlessness, overeating or emotional eating, loss of appetite, weight gain, weight loss, feeling resistance, intestinal problems, “toxic”behavior, aggression, overflowing emotions, and being stuck in emotions, dissociation from body signals (for example, not noticing hunger or thirst, needing to urinate, etc.), inability to bear the weight of life, addictions. In some cases, there may be neurological symptoms, fever, vomiting, or epileptic seizures. Inability to enjoy life and much more.

Our nervous system continues to develop in the first years after birth. Through a sense of safety, touch, emotional availability of caregivers, involvement, and comfort from caregivers, the nervous system can develop well. But the above is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. For example wartime and its effect on following generations. Feeding babies on the clock and let them cry in-between. But to what extent are we emotionally available in this digital age were stress and haste prevail ? Babies cannot comfort or secure themselves and needs touch to release excess energy. This is called co-regulation. But you’ll also understand that if the parents’ nervous system is chronically overstimulated or if they experience a lot of stress, this makes co-regulation impossible for the baby. A disrupted development of the nervous system is also called complex trauma or developmental trauma, and the symptoms have a progressive nature. When parents have a nervous system that is out of balance, this also impacts the baby’s nervous system. More than 60% of the population has developmental trauma. A disrupted nervous system is unconsciously passed on from generation to generation.

What can you do yourself?

Whether it’s an overstimulated or “understimulated” nervous system: in both cases, it’s important that we inhabit, experience, and feel our bodies again. From the head to the heart, but also maintain contact with your abdomen and pelvic floor. We need to become aware of our inner world and the subtler feelings. This is necessary to recognize when your system experiences unsafety in the first place. This is not the same as how your head thinks about it! Rationally, you may know that there’s no danger, but meanwhile, it can be experienced very differently by your nervous system. We often live so much in our heads that we don’t notice what’s happening in the body at all. If we learn to perceive the subtler feelings and work with them, the body doesn’t have to scream for attention in the form of illnesses and complaints. Start with this in peace and with the subtler feelings, not when your body is racing inside.

Yoga, dancing, swimming, breathing exercises, massage, martial arts, walking in nature, and contact with animals are very helpful. Don’t forget that we are mammals and need social interaction and connection. Less screens, “news,” and social media. This causes a lot of stress to your system.

With inner work or body-oriented work, the nervous system can come back into balance. There are many body-oriented techniques to transform the disruptions of the nervous system.

Literature: Books and podcasts by: Jan de Bommerez, The Tiger Awakens – Dr. Peter Levine The Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Porges