I’m noticing more and more people on social media encouraging folks to listen to their intuition, to connect with their bodies, to build self-attunement, etc and the common question I see in response is “Ok but how? How do I do that?”
I could get into the reasons why it can be so hard these days for people to truly connect with themselves and their bodies…like systemic oppressions, socialization, and trauma for example. And I will. But we all need to be on the same page to be able to have a deeper conversation about the effects these have on our bodies and the things that need to be done as individuals, in all of our relationships, as communities, and systemically to heal. And that starting point, in my opinion, is in our nervous systems.
Please check out the intro post
for more context as to why I’m personally deciding to spend many, many blog posts and videos breaking down somatic psych theory and how to apply it in the real world. I truly personally and professionally believe that somatic work is 1 solid way to build healthier relationships with yourself and others.
The 1st step to getting into somatic work is understanding your autonomic nervous system (aka the ANS). I’m going to use Polyvagal Theory (created by Stephen Porges) to break down the ANS and how it applies to learning your body and building your relationship with yourself.
I’m going to make these theory-heavy posts shorter than my usual posts to make sure that they are as easy to understand and receive as possible. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments and I’ll incorporate the answers into future blog posts and videos. This kind of learning isn’t something that can be rushed. Please sit with every post and video until you understand it before trying to learn anything new. This isn’t content to just consume.
This post is going to be an overview of the ANS before I start going into detail about each part and how to get connected to them.
What Is the Autonomic Nervous System?
Your autonomic nervous system is your 1st line of defense against danger. Even before you notice anything is up, your ANS is picking up signs and cues from the environment and people around you, etc and making assessments and interpretations. Your ANS scopes out the scene with the goal of protecting you and keeping you safe at all costs.
Even before you think half a sentence or even halfway take in all the visual information in your mind, your ANS has figuratively already checked the energy in the space, people’s body language, etc and made its decision – safe or not safe. This is done in literally a matter of seconds without you even knowing. These unconscious nervous system interpretations and how we respond to them have huge influences on how we see the world, how we respond to situations, our emotions, and even our longterm physical health.
The ANS – 2 Parts with 3 Pathways
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is made up of 2 major parts – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Part 1: The Sympathetic Nervous System
You might know the sympathetic nervous system by its more common name: fight/flight. It lives in the middle of your spinal cord in your back and stretches out to connect to your heart, eyes, and lungs. Which is essential for what it needs to do – get you active and ready to either take on the danger or to get the hell out of there. Your heart rate goes up, blood starts pumping, eyes start searching for the threat and/or a place to run, and your lungs try to take in as much air to get you ready to make your move. This part of your ANS is always trying to MOVE to safety – whatever that looks like.
How it often works is you’re out there in the world, minding your business and living life, when your ANS starts receiving signals that you might not be safe. And the moment it starts feeling some type of way, the ANS lets you know that something is up in a very physical way. How it looks IRL depends on each person. All of our brains are different and respond to things differently.
Here are some potential signs of a sympathetic nervous system fight/flight response:
- You might start fidgeting or sweating
- Your heart could start racing
- You might notice you’re breathing heavier than usual
- Your muscles might feel tight and tense, etc.
You might describe this emotionally as anger, panic, alertness, agitation, or frustration. And you might not be aware of exactly why you feel tense or mad. Or you might know what triggered the emotions, but aren’t sure why you are having a reaction that is bigger than the situation. Or you might be wondering why you are always tense and/or can’t seem to relax at all. Or why you are snapping at people all the time. Or why you can’t fall asleep at night because all these thoughts are racing in your head.
Part 2 – The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is not supposed to be up and running 24/7. Your brain literally can’t be in that alert, fight/flight state for too long. What goes up must come down eventually.
The purpose of the parasympathetic nervous system is to bring you down. The parasympathetic nervous system is made up of 2 smaller pathways that live on the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve (which has become pretty popular on social media lately) starts from your brain stem at the base of your neck and stretches to your lungs, heart, diaphragm, stomach, throat, eyes, and ears. Notice that it connects to some of the same places as the sympathetic nervous system. That helps it bring you down from high alert when the vagal nerve activates.
Your ANS brings you down from high alert with its 2 pathways, in 2 different ways – either by shutting down and going into what I sometimes call “low power mode” (dorsal vagus) or by regulating itself towards connection with yourself and/or other people you can trust (ventral vagus).
The Dorsal Vagus – Shutdown/Low-Power Mode
The dorsal vagus is the oldest and fastest part of the ANS, evolutionarily-speaking. Humans, all other mammals, and even reptiles have a dorsal vagus. After your ANS picks up signs of danger, it activates the fight/flight, hoping that by getting you active, you can get to safety one way or the other. But what happens when you can’t fight or flight your way to safety? That’s when the dorsal vagus steps in.
Reminder that this is all happens outside of your conscious awareness. This happens so quickly that you could be barely aware that something has triggered you and the dorsal vagus might have already made its move. I call it “shutdown” and “low power mode” because the purpose of the dorsal vagus is to put you in a protective state in order to survive and save your energy. The dorsal vagus is usually activated when your ANS realizes you are in danger AND you are trapped there. Think scenarios like chronic child abuse/neglect, being at an abusive workplace or school environment, being systemically oppressed, etc.
Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Can Look like:
The Ventral Vagus – Connection/Safety
The ventral vagus is the youngest part of the ANS and the younger of the 2 vagal pathways. The ventral vagus responds to signs of safety, calmness, and social connection.
Ventral Vagus Activation Can Feel Like:
Physically feeling emotionally warm and cozy
Feeling excitement, engaged, joy, connected to yourself, meditative, passionate, relaxed, calm, etc
Able to clearly see your options and what to do next
Feeling connected and on the same page with someone
That communal, on the same wavelength, feeling you get at religious/spiritual services, concerts, sports events, etc
Why Is It Important to Learn About the Autonomic Nervous System?
There is no such thing as separation between the mind and body.
Learning your autonomic nervous system involves understanding that our nervous system is picking up on things outside of our awareness. And learning to tap into this and bring these under the surface things into your awareness gives you a deeper level of understanding of your body. Understanding how your emotions physically manifest themselves in your body allows you to learn how to respond to them in a way that restores you and pours into you.
Everything is connected.
And just like trauma lives in the body, other emotions and psychological experiences do too. In order to connect with your intuition, heal trauma, and be one with your body, it starts with learning yourself and healing the lines of communication between yourself and your body that we are all encouraged to ignore and neglect in ourselves.
And most importantly, learning about the autonomic nervous system allows you to see that your mind is not your enemy and that you don’t have to be at war with your psychology and emotions. At the end of the day, our ANS is just here to protect us from the dangers of the world. And learning to be in conversation with it, with yourself, will open up a whole other world for you.
Next post will be a video where I use Daniel Siegal’s Hand model of the brain to further illustrate how the ANS works given what we already know for all you visual learners out there. And then I will break down each part of the ANS in detail with its own dedicated post. Thanks for reading!
The video versions of this post are on the QueeringPsychology YouTube Channel here: Part 1
, Part 2
, and Part 3