Your Autonomous Nervous System – your best friend
Managing the heart, all internal organs and blood vessels is too important to give us direct control over it. That is why it is all regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It’s called “autonomic” because it functions autonomously. It is like a computer that tracks the activity of all systems in the body. We don’t think about the process of breathing, digesting or vasoconstriction. All of it happens by itself.
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Each system dominates at a different time, which affects the body accordingly.
For example, when you go for a run you may experience the effects of the SNS: the blood is pumped to the muscles and your breathing accelerates. Feel sleepy after a hearty meal? The secret lies in the parasympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for digestion, making us feel relaxed and at rest.
Heart Rate Variability – A simple measure of the state of your Autonomous Nervous System
Obviously, these two branches affect the heart as well.
If the sympathetic branch is active it only means one thing — you need to provide the body with everything that is necessary for survival under stressful conditions. That is to pull all the resources, pump more blood to the muscles, make the heart beat faster. It’s no longer about variability, velocity — that’s what’s important now.
That’s why stress decreases overall heart rate variability: the intervals between heart beats get shorter and the pulse becomes faster.
On the other hand, the prevalence of the parasympathetic nervous system slows the heart rate down and makes it more variable. You breathe deeper and relax while the body recovers.
This ability of the autonomic nervous system to adapt to external and internal factors and keep the right balance in different situations is one of the essential functions of the human body which ensures its survival. Its dysfunction leads to diseases, illnesses and even fatal outcome.
Looking after your Autonomous Nervous System
My view is that we intuitively know how to do this. It’s just that everyday life gets in the way. And then are bodies, which initially send our brains subtle signals, like oversleeping, not feeling like going to the gym or feeling a little under he weather, start sending louder and more noticeable signals. Sickness, injury, anger, are all signals that we aren’t in balance. The trouble is, we get used to certain states such as stress or apathy, and then they become our “norm”. Without wanting to sound like a New Age Guru, it’s all about balance. If your work life is “full on”, then your recovery has to be just as “full on”. Whilst it may feel good to cane a WOD at a Crossfit Gym after 12 hours in the office, if you keep getting injured that’s signal that what you label as recovery might not be the recovery your nervous system needs.
My recommendation to clients is that they start by using a Quantified Self App, such as Welltory. This builds self-awareness of your levels of stress and energy, identifying those elements of your day that stress you, and those that help you recover or give you energy. It’s a low cost and objective view of your ANS, and helps you to “reset” your own sense of your state, which is the first step in taking control.
And remember that whilst we’ve talked mostly about the autonomous nervous system here, it’s part of your overall nervous system. And that nervous system is YOU.