Two Different Nervous Systems
We are the descendants of thousands of generations of ancestors who fought, fled, and played dead in order to survive and thrive. In a relatively short span of time, our life circumstances have changed radically from those who actually had to survive in nature. These days we navigate fast-paced traffic, sleep in locked houses, sit for hours on chairs, and tend to go to our refrigerator instead of to our garden for lunch.
During evolution, humans survived who were best able to adapt to often dangerous circumstances. They had to remember, avoid, and survive those dangers. This genetic inheritance has gifted us with a wealth of automatic responses to what life presents to us.
The two modes that drive our life
Our biology and our nervous systems are basically the same as they have been for well over a hundred thousand years. Within our body many biological functions, hormones, and other chemical reactions are at work all the time. And there are always two modes that are regulating our main activities. Most of the time they work as antagonists. They balance and regulate each other like a gas pedal and a brake.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) initiates “fight and flight” functions. This helps us in scary, dangerous, or simply stressful situations. For example, blood flows especially into those regions that need to work hard in fight or flight situations, such as the large muscles in the legs and arms. The heart and respiration rate are programmed to rise higher than normal to meet these needs.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) regulates “rest and digest” functions. It stimulates digestion and relaxation—which we can do when we are out of danger. At those times blood needs to be sent to the inner organs and the heart and respiration rates can be slow. (If you’d like to read more about the nervous system, you can find a nice and simple overview here.)
When you try to relax or meditate while you are stressed out, you can feel that it’s much more difficult than if you are calm. You might have heard that meditation can help you to relax. While this may be true for experienced meditators, many who start out on the journey find it difficult at first. You will likely meet imbalances in your nervous system, and ancient memories that might stimulate fight/flight responses.
This is why knowing what activates the parasympathetic nervous system and applying this first will make the experience much more satisfying. Conscious breathing, being aware of the body, yawning, focusing on positive emotions, and funnily enough, fiddling the upper lip (!) all activate the PNS.
If you’d like to get a bit more in-depth introduction into these skills you can enjoy the
free course “Relaxing into Meditation”.
It might help you to identify some powerful circuits in your own body and you might find some of your own allies for relaxation.