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Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2022 June 28, 2015 no comments

Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

A related advance in medical and Neuroscience is the newer findings in relation to how the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), interacts with our brains and sense awareness pathways in creating and then changing our reality. The role of the ANS in many physical and psychosomatic illnesses is now better understood, as is how the ANS works in our perceptual processes to give us our subjective reality of how we see the world we describe.

The nervous system generally is divided into 2 key parts. The first part is the central nervous system which includes the brain and spinal cord, which is the command and control system of the bodymind interaction within itself and with the world. The second part is the peripheral nervous system which brings messages and information from the sense awareness receptors to the spinal cord and brain, as well as carrying brain and spinal cord messages back to the muscles, organs and glands.

According to Neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, humans are designed to automatically respond to incoming sensory information from our environment with relatively stable action and behaviour patterns. One function of mind is to inhibit, organise, and modulate these automatic responses, which helps to make us reliable and stable people to ourselves and others.

This is important for us to preserve our relationships with others from where depend on meaning, company, affirmation, protection and connection. A key point is that traumatised individuals lose the predictability and stability of the behavioural and action responses after their trauma, and in doing so often end up becoming isolated, withdrawn, and victimised or judged negatively by themselves and others.

The ANS is part of our evolutionary heritage, and a key aspect of how we function as humans. The ANS has 2 principal states of being.

The first is the relaxed and healthy Parasympathetic state, which allows a person to function to optimal health, be relaxed, with the assistance of the Hypothalamus/Pituitary Gland/Adrenal gland (HPA Axis). This key set of glands and brain functions to release key mood hormones, proteins and chemicals into the body that then create the basis for the relaxed Parasympathetic bodymind states, and resulting feel good emotions.

The second state is the Sympathetic state of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and its activation occurs primarily from sensory and interpretive perceptions that previously we noted came from the 2 “back brains”. Indeed it is these 2 back brains that have primary influence over the ANS itself.

Once activated this leads to the person living from a “fight or flight” state of bodymind. In this state the body and mind the brain forces us to be in a primitive “survival” mode that is anxious, hyper vigilant, and is linked to the HPA Axis releasing “fight or flight” chemicals and hormones such as Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Norepinephrine to make us hyper-aroused, hyper-vigilant, and which limit pre-frontal brain, rational activity, such as concentration, logical thinking etc.

This Sympathetic state is supposed to be a short term “burst mode” way of being and cannot be sustained over any long period of time for a healthy outcome according to our body’s current state of evolutionary design.

The “fight or flight” state is designed to be resolved quickly, and not indefinitely sustained. This is the problem though for some people as they get into this state of being but their environment or their perception of their safety in their environment, keeps them unresolved and in a “fight or flight” mode, and so they start to firstly manifest Anxiety, and then for some they drop into Depression.

The mechanics of trauma also occur within the Sympathetic state of the ANS. Once a person is in a sustained “fight or flight” state, the brain via its Amygdala, starts to affect the Hypothalamus/Pituitary Gland/Adrenal gland (HPA Axis) via the two key substances Adrenaline and Cortisol, both of which medical studies have shown to be very high in sufferers of both Anxiety and Trauma.

The “fight or flight” state of being causes the HPA axis to produce these chemicals to keep the person in their anxious ridden Sympathetic Nervous System state. Trauma researchers and Neuroscience studies show that as sufferers stay in “fight or flight” mode for longer and longer, the HPA Axis starts to breakdown and exhibit duress and then illness.

The HPA Axis in our body designed us to live in “fight or flight” mode for short periods of time, or in “burst” mode, not as a way of living. When the HPA axis keeps producing these hormones on a long term continuous basis it results in these glands suffering a form of burnout.

The medical conditions of Adrenal Exhaustion or Burnout, Under or Over-active Thyroid, Pituitary Gland Fatigue, and some forms of migraine headaches are examples of this demand on the HPA Axis. These medical conditions are common in trauma sufferers.

The consequences of living in an extended period of Sympathetic ANS has impacts in both the body and the mind. In the mind of the person who starts to live more or less constantly from Sympathetic ANS, the resulting symptoms commonly include having a racing mind and thought loops where the thinking which often fear based and cannot be resolved.

It also includes feeling tired due to loss of sleep, having a busy mind that tends to ruminate or constantly think of some past issue that remains unresolved, of being hyper-vigilant to their environment, being unable to relax or concentrate in present time, to name a few.

In the body, there is a felt sense of jumpiness, alertness, fear, the tension in muscles, fatigue without sleepiness, raised heartbeat and blood pressure, sweaty or clammy hands, shaking, and twitching.

There can also be nervous tics, frequent urination, dry mouth or throat, dizziness, shallow breathing, stomach complaints, impulses to move and be busy or some form of hyperactivity followed by a collapse into alert tiredness again.

Emotional Mental Behavioural Physical
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Tiredness
  • Anger and Frustration
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Unhappiness
  • Crying
  • Worry
  • Depression
  • Decrease in concentration
  • focus and memory
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • Low self-esteem
  • Racing jumbled thoughts
  • Mind going blank
  • Confusion
  • Lack of motivation
  • Mood swings
  • Blaming / defensiveness
  • Nervous habits (nail biting, finger or foot tapping)
  • Change in appetite
  • Aggressive or subdued behaviour
  • Increase in alcohol consumption
  • Increase in smoking
  • Loss of libido
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension (common in neck and shoulders)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Low immunity to colds etc.

Table 1 – Symptoms of Stress

Indeed a link has now been proven by Paul Scholder between the profound sense of overall well-being and a normal healthy sense of balance. We have a vestibular “sense”, which tells us when we are upright and how gravity is affecting our bodies by detecting motion in 3 dimensional space.

Literally a “stable body image” and feeling “balanced or settled” relates to how the Cerebellum and other parts of the brain detect our vestibular sense and state. People can degenerate into a psychological collapse or breakdown as our sense of orientation in space becomes out of control.

The vestibular sense is overlooked as a sense awareness channel or organ, but it is an information channel that feeds into the vestibular apparatus, or three semicircular canals of the inner ear, and into the vestibular nuclei, which will affect our muscular control and overall bodymind movements, our sense of safety, and can trigger ANS “Fight or flight” states in some people.

Michael Merzenich and others have shown that that bodymind centric psychotherapy is one way that can “rewire” neurons via a process that creates alterations at the synapse, strengthening or increasing, or weakening and decreasing, the number of connections between the neurons.

Most clients coming into therapy with us have a neural circuit association running between some sense awareness trigger from their environment and a learned response that is defeating them or resulting in adverse or maladjusted outcomes. The therapy results in guidance to process a person towards a new reflex or reaction or stance towards that situation or trigger.

At the neural level we are “rewiring” the client as the rule of “what fires together wires together” applies. We simply stop a person reinforcing and deepening an existing pattern by creating a new pattern or association.

The brain stops reinforcing the old neural association and firing of that unconscious based reaction, which will cause neural circuit shrinking and disconnection over time. Instead we “wire” a person to a new association between their environmental trigger and the new reaction or stance.

This causes new synaptic associations to “wire and fire together”, and lead to a new emerging reality that eventually becomes the new unconscious reaction of that person. This is what the 4 stages of learning are referring to in their macro explanation of how we learn. This process is described in the toolkit section of the website.

Neuroscience has also found that training or repetition of a new learning or skill helps neurons fire faster, and that they are likely to fire in synch with each other, amplifying and creating clear signals which have far greater impact on the brain.

The use of emotion in therapy processes has also been found to aid the “learning” of new strategies, beliefs and reflex actions by also creating an amplification effect to the signal, believed to relate to the role of the active state of the limbic or “emotional” brain neural networks which fire and create associations in such learning.

At the Energetics Instiute, our Body Psychotherapy uses embodied, emotional level therapy processes when relevant to deepen a person’s new learning and adaptations of responses to life and situations.

We have incorporated a number of BodyMind exercises into therapy which are designed to shift a person from Sympathetic into Parasympathetic ANS. If a person adopts these exercises on a regular or daily basis, their BodyMind health normally increases and the relaxed Parasympathetic state creates a positive effect on the BodyMind health.

The ANS is responsible for the production of chemical messenger molecules called Neurotransmitters which play a critical role in the health of our BodyMind.

ANS and the role of Neurotransmitters in BodyMind

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is arguably the one of the most complex systems in nature. In the human BodyMind it is responsible for co-ordinating thousands of processes, from muscular contraction, reflexes, to emotive states such as crying.

The ANS uses chemical messengers or Neurotransmitters to convey information and instruction throughout the body to organs, processes and systems of the BodyMind. Candace Pert wrote an important book entitled “Molecules of Emotion” to describe the groundbreaking findings of hers and others in defining the role these chemicals and hormones mediate the interdependency between the body and the mind.

The brain uses these type of chemicals to tell the heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. These Neurotransmitters are also necessary for thought processes, emotions, and other essential body functions, including sleep, energy and fear.

In general a neuron can receive 2 types of signals, one class is excitatory and the other class inhibitory. If a neuron receives enough excitatory signals from other neurons it will fire off its own signal. When it receives enough inhibitory signals it will become less likely to fire off its own signal.

There exists a small space between the axons or “wires” that exist out of neurons that are used to convey the electrical signals across the physical body of a person to an adjoining neuron plug-in or connection point which is known as a dendrite. The space between this “end wire” and its “plug-in” point is known as a synapse.

The transmission of an electrical signal along an axon “wire” and then into the adjoining dendrite “plug-in” point does not occur electrically. It is a chemical signal that is produced at the end tip of the axon that must “float” across the synaptic space and connect to the dendrite in an excitatory or inhibitory manner.

These chemicals are collectively called neurotransmitters. These chemicals are often found to be out of balance in people who present to therapy with emotional problems, cognitive distortions, trauma, psychosomatic (emotional generated illness in the body) and psychogenic (mental generated illness in the body) illnesses.

The various Neurotransmitters can become too high or too low, leading to:

  • Feelings of sadness
  • Feelings of anxiousness
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Behavioural problems
  • Foggy thinking
  • Headaches
  • Bodily twitches and tics.

People who come to us often report that they have health care results indicating such outcomes, but have no awareness of the key roles that such chemicals can have on their health. The following is a general guide to the key Neurotransmitter types that humans possess and create in our human condition. Neurotransmitters are of two types, and a balance of the two is required for BodyMind health.

Firstly there is the Excitatory group of Neurotransmitters that stimulate the BodyMind, and there is the Inhibitory group of Neurotransmitters that calm the BodyMind.

The basic Excitatory group of Neurotransmitters include:

  • Aspartic Acid – maintains energy and stable brain function. Low levels can create tiredness and low mood, whilst high levels can trigger seizures and anxiousness.
  • Dopamine – feel good chemical of pleasure and satisfaction, and muscle control and function. Low levels result in addictive impulses and cravings, and high levels can affect attention, intestinal function, and developmental delays. Psychopathic and Narcissistic personalities are now known to have unusually high levels of Dopamine which activates strong reward urges that drives them to attain their desired objects of pleasure as a primary life function, without feeling or consideration for others when doing so.
  • Epinephrine or Adrenaline – important for motivation, mental focus and emotional stability. Low levels contribute to lack of energy, focus and concentration whilst high levels create sleep difficulties, anxiousness and attention issues.
  • Glutamate – is the primary Excitatory class neurotransmitter and is necessary for learning and memory. Low levels create mental focus, concentration and poor brain activity, whilst high levels create the basis for psychological disorders, cognitive distortions, low mood, seizures, and anxiousness.
  • Histamine – Helps to create and balance sleep-wake cycle with Melatonin, as well as energy and motivation. Low levels create a feeling of tiredness and lethargy, whilst high levels can make us sensitive at allergic responses and sleep difficulties.
  • Norepinephrine or Noradrenaline – is important for mental and emotional stability and focus. Low levels create lack of energy, focus and concentration, whilst high levels create anxiousness, high blood pressure, hyperactivity and stress.
  • PEA – is important for mental stability, focus and concentration. Low levels create attention difficulties, lack of concentration and focus, and low mood, whilst high levels create racing thoughts and mind, confusion, panic attacks, sleep difficulties and anxiousness.

The basic Inhibitory group of Neurotransmitters include:

Agmatine – acts as a blocker to potentially harmful levels or effects of excessive Glutamate (Excitatory class Neurotransmitter). It has no known effects at high levels but at low levels is associated with stress, anxiousness and low mood.

  • GABA – is the primary Neurotransmitter of the Inhibitory class, and is the basis for feeling calm and relaxed. Low levels create severe sleep difficulties, anxiousness and hyperactivity and mental racing, and low GABA is normally found in Depression sufferers. Medical science has now found that practicing yoga does relax the body and the mind more than any other type of exercise, due to the higher release of GABA in those who undertake yoga versus the level of GABA released in other forms of exercise.
  • Glycine – Acts with GABA to calm and relax the BodyMind. Low levels create severe sleep difficulties, anxiousness and hyperactivity and mental racing, whilst high levels also create anxiousness, low mood and stress related bodily and mental disorders.
  • Serotonin – modulates sleep, mood and appetite and sense of peace. Low levels create low mood, sleep difficulties, uncontrolled appetite impulses, headaches, hot flushes, and tension, whilst high levels activate higher levels of mood, stability and only side effect may be gut irritation issues. SSRI medications achieve high levels of this state.

Some Neurotransmitters interact to create compounds such as glutamine and DOPAC. None of these completely work in isolation to the others. Neurotransmitters are prone to fluctuate in either too high or too low directions due to a number of basic causes:

Stress from emotional causes or environments.

  • Illness
  • Infection
  • Poor diet
  • Toxic chemicals and heavy metals accumulated in the body
  • Trauma
  • Mental and emotional issues and disorders

We work with an embodied psychotherapeutic process that intervenes into the ANS states of Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous system. The ANS state of a person plays a primary role, in conjunction with the Amygdala and other parts of the brain, plus the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, Adrenal gland) in triggering both Excitatory and Inhibitory classes of Neurotransmitters.

Body Psychotherapy is designed to leave a person in a Parasympathetic state of ANS as a majority of people coming to our Energetics Institute practice are living in a form of semi-permanent “fight or flight” mode, or Sympathetic nervous system state. In this semi-permanent state, many people report they exhibit symptoms of some of the out of balance Neurotransmitter states reported here.

By resolving the emotional and mental/cognitive distortions that affect them, we are able to help many people start to live from a more appropriate and balanced state of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

Our work also helps those who struggle to activate a Sympathetic Nervous System state when that is an appropriate response to an environmental trigger or stimulus. In our work the use of the term “Charge or Charged state” refers to a BodyMind state of Sympathetic Nervous system, and the term “Discharge or Discharged state” refers to the BodyMind state of Parasympathetic Nervous System.

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