What Is The Autonomic Nervous System?

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Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the branch of your nervous system that’s responsible for all the processes that go on just below your conscious awareness. For instance, when you eat a meal, you don’t have to willfully think about how your body will digest and absorb it or continually focus on taking in oxygen through your lungs all day. These are processes that happen without any conscious input from you, and instead are carried out through the direction of your ANS.

Some of the vital functions that your ANS is responsible for include[*]:

Blood pressure

Heart and breathing rates

Body temperature

Digestion

Metabolism (thus affecting body weight)

The balance of water and electrolytes (such as sodium and calcium)

The production of body fluids (saliva, sweat, and tears)

Urination

Defecation

Sexual response

Along with the crucial subconscious activities that are regulated by your ANS, from an ancestral perspective, this system is also responsible for your feelings of safety and survival.

The ANS has two primary divisions that regulate its function, the sympathetic branch, and the parasympathetic branch. However, recent understanding into the ANS has uncovered subtleties that bridge these two branches, along with a third activated state called dorsal vagal shutdown.

The traditional understanding of the autonomic nervous system goes something like this:

Parasympathetic Mode
When you feel safe and calm, and there is no threat in sight, your ANS goes into parasympathetic mode. In parasympathetic mode, your heart rate will slow, breathing becomes deep and relaxed, digestion is engaged, and your sexual response is more active. This is a time to relax and enjoy what life has to offer.

Sympathetic Mode
On the other hand, when you sense a threat in your environment, your sympathetic mode is engaged. Your body responds by enhancing your heart rate, and breathing, digestive functions, and sexual arousal take the back burner, and you enter what is known as the “fight or flight” response.

A New Take On The Autonomic Nervous System
As previously mentioned, more recent discoveries are finding that your ANS is a bit more complex than we once believed. While parasympathetic mode continues to be the primary state when you feel safe and calm, there is much more to the story when stress enters the scene.

Instead of a fight or flight response that’s tied to sympathetic mode, researchers are finding that there is an additional response, called “freeze or fold,” that acts as a secondary adaptation to situations that our subconscious deems dangerous. This offers us a deeper understanding of how trauma may affect the responses of the autonomic nervous system, and therefore our actions and behaviors when we feel unsafe.

When the “freeze or fold” response is activated, you’re no longer operating solely from the sympathetic branch but engaging something called dorsal vagal activation.

Dorsal Vagal Activation
Dorsal vagal activation is triggered when the perceived threat moves from “dangerous” to potentially life-threatening. This ancient defense system creates a shift in your ANS that largely influences organs below your diaphragm. It drops your metabolic rate, immobilizes your body, and shifts you into a state of numbness, shutdown, and collapse.

In dorsal vagal activation, your body begins to release its natural pain killers known as endogenous opiates that bring a sense of calm in the face of anticipated death. This mode of your ANS is actually the oldest evolutionary defense system.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Or Fold
With the incorporation of dorsal vagal mode, we can now look at our defense system with more insight. The four evolutionary states brought on by stress or danger include:

Fight

The “fight” response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. This is in line with the traditionally understood adaptation for a human to kick their survival instincts into high-gear in the face of danger.

In the fight response, your heart rate will increase, breathing will become heavier, and your blood will move from your internal organs to your limbs so you can fight off your predator and protect yourself. Emotionally, when you’re in fight mode, you can be angry, irritated, and rageful.

Flight

In the “flight” response, your body will shift into sympathetic mode much the same as “fight.” The major difference here is that instead of anger being your driving emotion, fear will take the reigns along with worry, anxiety, and sometimes even terror.

In flight, you aren’t interested in fighting off the danger; you want to avoid and flee the scene.

Freeze (enter: dorsal vagal activation)

The freeze response is a hybrid between sympathetic mode and dorsal vagal activation. This is where the latest research is beginning to stray from the classic sympathetic vs. parasympathetic model.

In freeze, your body is activated by both sympathetic and dorsal vagal mode. While fear is still a driving emotion, the desire to run or fight is overshadowed by a sense of immobilization coming from dorsal vagal activation. It can be somewhat confusing when you see someone in freeze mode because their lack of outward aggression or anxiety may lead you to believe that they are calm, when in fact, they are simply just numb[*].

Fold (full dorsal vagal shutdown)

When the fold response is activated, you have exited sympathetic mode and entered complete dorsal vagal shutdown. You are no longer looking for ways to survive (fight or flight) and instead enter a state of physical and emotional collapse.

In this state of overwhelm, you may experience absent-mindedness, dissociation, and depersonalization. In extreme cases, you may even pass out or lose consciousness.

Implications Of Chronic Stress
Your body has the ability to move in and out of parasympathetic mode, sympathetic mode, and even dorsal vagal shut down with relative ease. In your daily life, you may experience moments of these states before your body self regulates and brings you back into a place of calm.

However, if you are under chronic stress or have experienced trauma, you can get stuck in sympathetic fight or flight or dorsal vagal freeze and fold. When this happens, it can lead to disruptions in essential skills like learning and self-soothing. Furthermore, it can leave you in a state of anxiousness and depression, feeling withdrawn from life and like a shell of a person.

How Brain Harmony Can Help
At Brain Harmony, we see many friends come in that are either in sympathetic mode or dorsal vagal activation. Instead of offering quick-fix treatments like medications, we work with you from a bottom-up approach to get your nervous system back online and gently nudge you back into a state of calm and safety.

Our CALM™ approach begins with comforting the nervous system via the vagus nerve. With vagal regulation, we offer your brain a way to feel comfortable and safe as the vagus nerve is activated when you’re in parasympathetic mode. It’s only from this place that you can begin to reorganize the neural programming that got you into a state of “fight or flight” or “freeze or fold” in the first place.

At Brain Harmony, vagal regulation begins with a program called the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP). The SSP is a listening program that offers music with sound that can travel through your tympanic membrane (eardrum) in your ear and reach the vagus nerve. From here, this input can regulate all kinds of autonomic responses like heart rate, breathing, digestion, and so on.

When you build up strength in your vagus nerve by listening to the Safe and Sound Protocol, you become more resilient to stress and begin to feel safer in your surroundings. In this way, regulation of the vagus nerve is the ultimate way to enhance your mind-body connection.

Another tool that we use to enhance feelings of safety and calm is the Alpha-Stim. The Alpha-Stim device is attached to your earlobes and generates a patented alpha waveform that

works on a cellular level by enhancing alpha waves in your brain. Alpha waves create a sense of calm as they relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia — giving your nervous system a much-needed break from the hectic input of the modern world.

Once you feel neurologically safe, then the individual is more prepared for the deeper organization to come. We can teach your brain new ways of responding to stress and other stimuli, training your brain to build new, healthier connections.

Here is a story about how we use the knowledge of vagal regulation to first give that pulse of safety to the nervous system that then awakens the portal of social engagement, which for Natalia was gaining access to speech and language skills.

Natalia’s Brain Harmony Success Story

Natalia is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum and suffers from extreme general and separation anxiety, along with sleep issues and communication problems. For several years, Natalia’s mother worked with speech therapists and occupational therapists to help Natalia.

Finally, Natalia’s mother found Brain Harmony and got her started on the Safe and Sound Protocol.

From Natalia’s mother:

“I used it for just a month or so, but I see stuff in my daughter I have never seen. The anxiety disappeared, the sleeping got better. She’s more calm. She said, “Mommy, you go to the store, I’ll stay with Dad.” She started to learn from other kids. She started to learn from her environment. She’s starting to listen more. Some people told me that she will reach a cap and will never be able to be conversational. My daughter now goes to the park and talks to the kids.”

Nancy’s Brain Harmony Success Story

Nancy was having problems with anxiety, brain fog, and depression and was trying to find a non-pharmaceutical route. As a nurse in an intensive care unit, Nancy found that her brain fog and anxiety were getting in the way of work. She couldn’t process her thoughts or get them down on paper, word retrieval was an issue, and she experienced memory loss. On top of it all, she felt depressed and disengaged with life.

Nancy needed help, and she felt that her meds weren’t working, so she sought out another type of treatment and found Brain Harmony. After beginning the program, she noticed right away that her anxiety diminished using the Safe and Sound Protocol and Alpha-Stim. She then gradually felt the depression and brain fog begin to lift. She went from not being able to organize her thoughts to fully functioning at work and in life. Brain Harmony not only helped to heal her anxiety, but it lifted her brain fog, diminished her depression, and improved her sleep.

It doesn’t take serious threats to activate your “fight or flight” response in today’s society, and far too many people are finding themselves in “freeze or fold” when things become all too overwhelming. If you feel like you or your loved one has strayed from a feeling of calm and safety as your default mode, it may be time to get your nervous system back online. Call Brain Harmony today for a Free Consultation to see if the CALM™ protocol is for you.

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