The autonomic nervous system and how to change it with meditation
Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the functions of our internal organs (the viscera) such as the heart, stomach, and intestines. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system, and it also controls some of the muscles within the body. We are often unaware of the ANS because it functions involuntarily and reflexively. The ANS has two tracts of activity the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.
One of the easiest ways scientists have found to observe the effects of emotions on the nervous system is through monitoring heart rhythms. Different types of emotions send mixed messages through your nervous system to the heart, brain, and body. The balance of the ANS is an essential for healthy functioning of the body, mind and emotions.
1. Sympathetic System: The Fight or Flight Response
When you feel threatened or are in a dangerous situation, your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure increase. Your body sends more blood to your muscles to prepare them in case they have to move fast. For example, let’s say you’re in the park and see an angry dog running towards you. As you experience the threat, your sympathetic system will make physiological changes, so you prepare to run from or fight with the dog.
2. Parasympathetic System- The Rest and Digest Response
When your body is in a restful state, your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure drop. As a result, your digestive organs get more flow to help the digestive process. For example, it’s a nice sunny day at the park and you decide to sit on a bench to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Your body will rest and digest while you have a relaxing experience.
In our daily living, we experience stress and threatening situations that can trigger the ANS. When our brain perceives a mental or emotional threat, it also activates the sympathetic system. Your body instinctively will do that even when there isn’t a physical threat. These psychological triggers create stress. With meditation, we can activate the parasympathetic system and create a relaxation response that will calm the body reactions.
In the 1960’s Dr. Herbert Benson investigated the ANS and coined the term ‘relaxation response’.
According to Dr Benson, this is a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the parasympathetic nervous system. And he considered meditation as one method of triggering the relaxation response.
The more we meditate, the more will be able to experience the benefits of activating the parasympathetic system. Dr. Benson’s research showed evidence that by controlling the INS, we can help health conditions that are caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, and anxiety disorders.
Steps for relaxation response
- Sit quietly in comfortable position
- Close your eyes and notice your breathing
- Focus on a word or just your breath
- Be unattached to your thoughts
- Practice for 10-15 minutes every day
How long will it take to experience meditation benefits?
According to a research study from the University of Santa Barbara in California, you don’t have to be an experienced meditator to see these benefits. You only need two weeks. If you’re thinking about starting meditation, use these benefits to inspire you to take the first step.
Begin today your meditation practice.