Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that operates without your conscious control. You don’t have to think about your autonomic nervous system (ANS) in order for it to function. Good thing, too, because you’d be quite bogged down if you actually had to consciously control of all of the vital functions your ANS is responsible for, such as:

    • Generating “gut reactions” to threatening stimuli.
    • Activating your body’s fight or flight system when you are in a dangerous or life-threatening predicament.
    • Bringing your body into a state of rest and recovery after stressful situations.
    • Coordinating the process of digestion.

Healing and recovering from a functional medical problem involves working with the ANS at some level.

Three Branches of Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

Your Autonomic Nervous System is comprised of three different yet related systems that work together to coordinate various activities:

The sympathetic nervous system is your body’s “fight-or-flight” system. It’s a fast-acting system, and it needs to be. If a real threat to your life emerges, you need to be able to deal with it immediately. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, your body is flooded with chemicals that energize your body and allow it to act swiftly in order to fight or fun for your life.

Your parasympathetic nervous system is your body’s “rest and digest” system, and it’s a slow-acting system. As we deal with and “survive” stressful situations, our parasympathetic nervous system can be activated in a pleasant way in times of “safety” in order to restore full functioning in our body, to give our bodies an opportunity to recover from the effects of stress, and to enjoy pleasurable activities. The parasympathetic nervous system can also be activated in an unpleasant way by generating a “freeze” response in reaction to a threat. 

Your Enteric Nervous System is often referred to as your body’s “second brain”. It is located in your gut, structurally looks a lot like your brain tissue, houses as many or more neurons than your spinal cord, and contains all of the same neurotransmitters (chemicals that facilitate the transmission of neural messages) that are contained in your first brain. You really do have another brain in your gut.

How to Work with Your ANS

Neurons (nerve cells) that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fire down certain pathways with repetition create neural pathways over time. Your ANS does automatically what it’s been designed and trained to do. To improve the way your ANS functions and the way your body functions as a result, you must first study how your ANS currently functions and then learn how to teach your ANS some new habits using repetition over time.

A dysregulated nervous system typically goes hand-in-hand with a dysregulated body, or a body racked with chronic pain and/or chronic stress. Healing and recovering from a functional medical problem involves working with the ANS at some level. While you may not have total conscious control of your ANS, you do have the ability to learn how your ANS functions and therefore how to influence the way it functions.

For those of you who are experiencing gastrointestinal distress, please take note that the ANS is heavily involved in the process of digestion. This is why working with a psychologist should be part of your treatment plan. To learn more about the connection between your nervous system and digestive system, read about Gut Psychology.