The Role of the Nervous System in Wellbeing
The nervous system regulates the interactions between our body and the outside world. It is divided into two systems: the central nervous system (CNS – consisting of the brain and the spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS – consisting of nerves and ganglia outside of the spinal cord).
The CNS, amongst its many other functions, regulates the body’s response to the ‘gut feeling’ that we have about other human beings. It also allows us to notice the feelings of other people and to perceive them with empathy. In a nutshell, it tells us whether the person we are encountering is safe or dangerous and how they are feeling at the moment of the encounter. Developing awareness of this gut feeling and noticing other people’s emotions are important functions that help us navigate our social world and relate to and connect with other people.
The PNS’ main function is to connect the limbs and the organs to the CNS. It is divided into two divisions: the afferent sensory division detects information from the outside world and our internal organs and sends it to the CNS so that the brain can prepare for appropriate action. The efferent motor division sends motor information from the CNS to different parts of our body, so that we can take action. This motor division is divided into two further systems, the somatic nervous system (which, in a nutshell, allows us to consciously and voluntarily move our muscles/body) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) whose motor functions are involuntary and cannot be consciously controlled.
The ANS is responsible for our unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate, respiration and digestion. It further divides into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch allows us to manage stressful/threatening situations by initiating a full-body mobilization known as the fight or flight response. It gets the body ready to fight or to run away by increasing our heart rate and blood sugar levels, sending the blood from the viscera into the limbs, dilating the bronchii to increase our oxygen intake, dilating the pupils, and increasing our mental activity. Basically, when we are stressed, the body shuts down all functions that are not needed in a situation that requires to deal with immediate threat, and increases all functions that are needed to survive, stress hormones included.
The parasympathetic branch allows us to rest and digest, to save energy and to regulate sympathetic arousal (stress). As such, it keeps the organs functioning at a level that is most appropriate for the body’s homeostasis and it allows us to regenerate and heal by bringing the immune system back online.
This is why we get sick when we are stressed for an extended period of time. A well balanced ANS keeps us physically healthy and gives us a feeling of safety, strength, presence and ease, thus keeping us psychologically healthy too.
More recently, science has understood another part of the ANS, the polyvagal system. Commonly referred to as the vagus nerve, it consists of the dorsal vagus and the ventral vagus. The dorsal vagus originates in the brainstem and is responsible for our survival responses, and more specifically, those of freezing and fainting/dissociating. The ventral vagus originates in the limbic system and allows us to regulate our stress by engaging socially with other people, in order to defuse aggression and tension. It helps us communicate through eye contact, facial expressions and tone of voice and gives us the ability to listen to other people, as well as calming the heart rate. In short, it makes us available for human connection, which is paramount to our overall wellbeing.
The many tools and techniques that we present on this website will help you balance the different parts of your nervous system. Browse the content of this website and start with anything you like, every little step helps!