The Secret to Optimal Life is in our Brain – Many people wonder why they are stressed when their life is successful. Most of my clients are professionals who have created abundance and status in life, yet they are unhappy, disillusioned, and burnt out. I have discovered that this is due not only to constant worry and pressure but also ignorance of how the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) works.
Many people are familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze response to perceived threats. What they don’t know are the intricate functions of the ANS that can affect our perception, beliefs, and reality. It is not a matter of controlling our thoughts and emotions because our conscious mind has no control over our ANS.
The ANS controls many of our bodily functions without conscious thought.
It regulates our breathing, digestion, circulation, and endocrine systems. So we don’t have to constantly remember to do any of those functions. Our autonomic nervous system is principally located in the medulla oblongata and spinal column (brain stem). Which is the oldest part of our evolutionary brains.
As our brains evolved from reptiles, it added the temporal lobe (memory, behavior, language, hearing), the occipital lobe (vision), the parietal lobe (reading, body sensations, orientation), and the frontal lobe (problem-solving, reasoning, speaking, voluntary motor functions). These appeared approximately 200,000 years ago, while the brain stem was developed millions of years ago.
The ANS is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is primarily concerned with survival, as it is usually referred to as “fight or flight.” The PNS is concerned with contemplation, creativity, and relaxation and is usually referred to as “rest and digest.”
This anatomy lesson is important for two reasons: (1) our experience of life is far different when we are activating our SNS (stress) versus our PNS (creativity), and (2) we can control which system is activated so we can change our experience from pain to pleasure. Neurobiologists have done extensive research into the correlations and effects of each system on our minds and bodies.
An important feature of the SNS and PNS systems is how they are activated.
The SNS system is activated primarily by sensory organs perceiving threat (fear), while the PNS system is activated by feelings of safety and peace. An example of the difference in our experience is that SNS is always looking for problems and danger (fear-based negativity). While PNS is seeking solutions and problem-solving (inspiration and intuition).
Biologically, the SNS system triggers the hippocampus to feel fear and signals the adrenal glands to secret adrenalin and cortisol. This is good for life-threatening situations as this reroutes all our body’s resources to our muscles and survival. The problem is when the SNS is activated for long periods of time, our reduced higher brain functions make poor decisions which keeps us locked in the SNS. Furthermore, we are prone to see threats that do not exist and keep our SNS system activated.
When we can activate the PNS, our bodily resources go back to support higher brain functions, and we can relax.
This is where we can connect with our inspiration, imagination, and intuition (the three I’s) and can feel safe. Feeling safe is the origin of feeling loved and the basis of civilization, connection, and communication (the three C’s). The PNS triggers the hippocampus to signal the relevant organs to secret dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, endorphins, and oxytocin, the “feel good” hormones.
When you compare the two systems, spending too much time with the SNS activated will lead to isolation, stress, anxiety, depression, and a compromised immune system. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, humans require esteem, belongingness, safety, and physiological needs for basic physical, emotional, and mental health. If not met, humans will feel anxiety and stress and suffer. It is impossible to meet these needs if the SNS is activated for long periods of time.
Side By Side
Conversely, when the PNS is activated, not only can our basic needs be met. But the conditions for growth and self-actualization, and enlightenment can be achieved. PNS can help create art, music, dance, a common purpose, group identity, justice, and civilization. In fact, the newer parts of the brain (temporal, occipital, parietal, and frontal lobes) made civilization possible. They do not adequately function unless the PNS is activated.
I have seen remarkable changes in the quality of life of my clients when they switch out of the SNS and into the PNS. The stress and overwhelm associated with work, relationships, or health-related pressures just melt away, and solutions present themselves automatically. I burned out in 2004 and now realize it was caused by an overactive SNS. If I had known about the PNS, then I most likely would not have burned out.
The process for activating the PNS involves the Vagus nerve, a nerve that connects our organs, cranial/facial nerves, larynx, bronchi, and lower digestive tract to our brain.
Here are some activities that will activate the PNS and switch off SNS:
- Smile (and mean it)
- Pranayama Breathing. Breathe deeply, especially while meditating. You can try exhaling longer than the inhale, or on the inhale, vibrate the back of the mouth like a snore, and when exhaling, say “HAAA”
- With the head looking forward, move the eyes all the way to the left for 60 seconds and then to the right for 60 seconds. Keep repeating until you yawn.
- Hum, sing, or say “OM”; • Hugs.
- Focusing on pleasant thoughts and memories
- Feeling grateful
It is remarkable how these same practices were developed in the East without any knowledge of the ANS or the PNS. Monks and yogis simply knew by trial and error that these activities produced feelings of bliss, awareness, relaxation, increased consciousness, and well-being, as well as releasing negative emotions such as fear, anger, regret, guilt, and shame. Ironically, Western medicine has finally caught up to Eastern spiritual practices. I incorporate all the activities listed above in my daily routine, and I rarely feel stress or negative emotions. The longer I can activate my PNS, the neuroplasticity of my brain will change to support my PNS, “programming” my brain to think and believe in positive ways. By learning how to activate the PNS, we can return to our natural state of safety and belonging.
By doing this, we can achieve communication, connection, and civilization with inspiration, imagination, and inspiration.
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