Hacking your parent Autonomic Nervous System to find calm amongst our busy parenting lives

In our everyday life, we feel stressed and deal with different kinds of challenges. As parents, it is more difficult even to bear the hardships. But if we can control our nerves, we can achieve whatever we want. Let’s learn how our autonomic nervous system helps us be calmer as parents.

The nervous system divides into two major regions: the central and peripheral nervous systems.

The central nervous system (CNS) is the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is everything else.

The nervous system helps us receive information about the environment around us (sensation) and generate responses to that information (motor responses). Its function divides into three actions: sensation, integration, and response.

The first major function of the nervous system is sensation (sensory functions). It helps receive information about the environment to gain input of what’s happening around, and inside the body.
The sensory functions of the nervous system register the presence of a change from homeostasis or a particular event in the environment, known as a stimulus.  

Stimuli are received by sensory structures, which are communicated to the nervous system. It is where the information is processed.

Stimuli compare or integrate with, other stimuli, memories of previous stimuli, or the state of a person at a particular time.

We call it integration and it leads to a specific response that takes place. The process of integration combines sensory perceptions and higher cognitive functions. These functions, such as memories, learning, and emotion produce a response.

The nervous system produces a response on the basis of the stimuli perceived by sensory structures (such as the movement of muscles. This happens in order to withdraw a hand from a hot stove; the contraction of muscle tissue, to move the skeleton; cardiac muscle is influenced as heart rate increases during exercise. The smooth muscle contracts as the digestive system moves food along the digestive tract.) Responses also include the neural control of glands in the body, such as the production and secretion of sweat by the eccrine and merocrine sweat glands found in the skin to lower body temperature.

Coming back to the two main regions of the nervous system and seeing this all come together in the bigger picture, the peripheral nervous system is divided based on the functions each area performs. The sensory (or afferent, meaning “moving towards”) division of the peripheral nervous system includes nerves that have a sensory function and carry impulses to the central nervous system for integration. The motor (or efferent, meaning “moving away from”) division includes nerve fibres that carry impulses away from the CNS to initiate a response. Each nerve is like a two-way superhighway, containing thousands of both sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) nerve fibres.  

There are two main subdivisions of the motor division (response division): 
1. The somatic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for voluntary or conscious motor responses (contraction of skeletal muscle)
2. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for involuntary motor responses (regulation of cardiac muscle, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, sexual arousal, and activation of glands.)

In this episode, our focus is on the autonomic nervous system. It contains three anatomically distinct divisions: enteric, sympathetic, and parasympathetic. The autonomic nervous system is also the primary mechanism in control of the fight-or-flight response:

– The enteric nervous system or intrinsic nervous system consists of a mesh-like system of neurons. They govern the function of the gastrointestinal tract.  

– The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response during a threat or perceived danger.

– The parasympathetic nervous system, also referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system, functions to conserve the body’s natural activity, restoring the body to a state of calm and relaxation once a threat/emergency has passed. The parasympathetic nervous system leads to decreased arousal. Nerve fibres of the parasympathetic nervous system arise within the central nervous system. The primary nerves involved are cranial nerves.  

The sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically function in opposition to each other. Experts understand this better as complementary in nature rather than antagonistic. The sympathetic nervous system is like a quick response. The parasympathetic is a more slowly activated, and dampening system.

In high-arousal situations or when we feel stress, the sympathetic nervous system activates. This system’s activity was adaptive for our ancestors, increasing their chances of survival. For example, when we hunt a small game, it can disturb a large bear with her cubs.

The sympathetic nervous system activates when we face stressful or high-arousal situations. The activity of this system was adaptive for our ancestors, increasing their chances of survival. For example, when hunting a small game, a large bear with her cubs is disturbed. At that moment, our ancestor’s body would undergo a series of changes – a direct function of sympathetic activation – preparing him/her to face the threat (namely the pupils would dilate, the heart rate and blood pressure would increase, the bladder would relax, the liver would release glucose, and adrenaline would surge into the bloodstream). In neuroscience, we call this combination of physiological changes the fight or flight response. They would allow the body access to energy reserves and heightened sensory capacity. So, it might fight off a threat or run away to safety.

While the nature of these physiological responses was critical for the survival of our ancestors. They lived in a world full of real physical threats. Many of the high-arousal situations we face in the modern world are more psychological in nature. We are often in no real physical danger in today’s situations (such as having to present to a room full of people or having to sit an exam). Still, we still respond to these modern-day perceived threats with our evolved fight or flight response. As a result, we often suffer negative health consequences when faced constantly with psychological threats. These are the situations where we can neither fight nor flee, with research suggesting persistent and repeated exposure to such stressful situations. It ultimately results in decreased well-being (such as an increase in susceptibility to heart disease and impaired function of the immune system.)

It is crucial to understand the role of our autonomic system in our responses to everyday life. This teaches us way better to effectively control our flight-or-fight responses to non-threatening situations. Our body can involuntarily perceive these life parts as threatening, which may never be the case. In this vlog, we explore ways to consciously leverage our parasympathetic nervous system to achieve more calm within ourselves and our children.  

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