When we feel physical discomfort, it’s a signal to our bodies to take action, like when you touch a hot stove and quickly pull your hand back. While an immediate reaction to emotional discomfort may not be as visible, it is registered by the body as well.
Some mental discomfort is inevitable because we evolved into feeling beings emotionally invested in others and experience distress when we or they are harmed, rejected, or hurt. A car recklessly cuts in front of you, a snarky remark by your spouse, or a thought worrying how you’re going to pay for the new transmission can be interpreted as a threat by your brain which sounds the alarm and your body reacts accordingly.
When this happens, epinephrine increases your heart rate so you can move fast. Norepinephrine sends blood to large muscle groups and the bronchioles of your lungs dilate as well as your pupils. Cortisol is released suppressing your immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. Your emotions intensify, and, as limbic and endocrine activation increases, the executive functioning of your brain decreases.
In the harsh world of our evolving ancestors, this physical chain of reactions to serious threats helped our species survive. However, with the constant, low-grade stressors of our pedal-to-the-metal society, this sometimes almost constant response creates unhealthy conditions for the mind and body with lasting consequences.
Back when most humans died around middle age, the benefits of such activation outweighed the long-term costs. But today, with people living well beyond, the cumulative damage of chronically over stimulating this system leads to gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine problems with the greatest impact usually being seen on psychological well being as increased anxiety and depressed mood.
Most bodily systems and their responses are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which operates mostly below consciousness. The ANS has three wings: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – fight or flight); the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS – rest and digest); and the enteric nervous system (regulates the gastrointestinal system).
The PNS and SNS evolved hand in hand to keep us alive. We need them both. However, if your SNS were surgically disconnected, you’d live. If your PNS were disconnected, you couldn’t survive. Just like you can’t drive a car by stomping on the gas and the brake at the same time, it’s best when the SNS, the gas pedal, and the PNS, the brakes, work together in balance.
In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson suggests that we strive to exist predominantly in a baseline state parasympathetic arousal of calm peacefulness with mild SNS activation for enthusiasm, vitality, wholesome passions, and occasional spikes to deal with demanding situations. “This is your best-odds prescription for a long, productive, happy life. Of course, it takes practice.” he writes.
The “Path Of Practice” is what Hanson refers to as “the law of little things,”:
…although little moments of greed, hatred, and delusion have left residues of suffering in your mind and brain, lots of little moments of practice will replace these Three Poisons and the suffering they cause with happiness, love, and wisdom.
The most powerful way to use your mind-body connection to improve your physical and mental health is through guiding your ANS. Every time you calm the ANS through stimulating the PNS you tilt your body toward inner peace and well being.
Deliberately taking steps to make you feel safer and calm the ANS helps control the hardwired tendency to look for and overreact to threats. Practices, such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques, using imagery, connecting with others, being mindful of fear itself, coming into the present, evoking inner protectors, being realistic, and increasing your sense of secure attachment, encourage this. The PNS can also be stimulated by relaxing breathing exercises, big exhalations, touching the lips, mindfulness of the body, balancing your heartbeat, biofeedback, and meditation. Find refuge in whatever is a sanctuary and refueling station for you, including people, activities, places, and intangible things like reason, a sense of your innermost being, or truth, will increase the PNS calming response in your body.
image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/josefeliciano/