• Stretch
  • Posts
  • How well do you know your autonomic nervous system?

How well do you know your autonomic nervous system?

🤸‍♀️ Stretch 69

Quick Stretch update: I’m switching from a weekly cadence to every other two weeks for a while. There’s lots on my plate right now and I want to make sure I keep sending out stuff I’m proud of and is worth your time!

“It’s very hard to control the mind with the mind.”

This must be one of the most eye-opening statements I’ve come across in terms of stress management. (Shoutout to Andrew Huberman!)

We all have a hardwired system for stress and a system for destress hardwired into our bodies. That means we all have the capacity to learn how to feel in control of our feelings of stress, instead of feeling overwhelmed by it.

I used to try to force myself into a feeling of calm. But what I’ve now learned that in order to to get better at managing stress, I need to look at my body first, and the best place to start is understanding the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The most important physiological mechanism to understand: your autonomic nervous system

In a nutshell:

You have a central nervous system, which is your brain and spinal cord. And you have a peripheral nervous system, which is basically everything else.

Your ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system, and it’s responsible for all functions that are humming in the background without your conscious control or effort—like our heart rate, body temperature, digestion, breathing, etc.

The ANS controls these functions through two separate branches:

  • Sympathetic nervous system (SNS)

  • Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)

These two branches work together to help you respond appropriately to your surroundings, depending on what’s happening and what you’re thinking.

Let’s take a look at what that means.

The sympathetic nervous system: your stress system

The sympathetic nervous system is a group of neurons that sit in the middle of your body—starting at the front of your neck, all the way down to your navel.

When something stresses us out in our minds (an upcoming presentation) or it enters our physical environment (an email from a horrible client), that chain of neurons gets activated.

Here’s a list of the common reactions happening in your body:

  • Pupil dilation to allow more light to enter the eyes, improving vision and alertness.

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure. Your heart beats faster and with more force, increasing the rate of blood flow throughout the body. The aim is to supply your body (muscles) with oxygenated blood.

  • Opening up and widening of the air passages. This allows for increased airflow and oxygen intake, to ensure that the body’s tissues have enough oxygen to respond to the situation. Breathing is fast and shallow.

  • Stress hormones are released, like epinephrine (or adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These hormones circulate through the body, intensifying and prolonging the fight-or-flight response.

  • Digestion and salivation are slowed down, so your body can divert energy to other areas that are more needed during a stress response (and why you can have a dry mind when stressed!)

Isn’t that incredible, when you see it laid out like that?

All your body is doing is getting you ready for action and movement. This hardwired fight-or-flight response was designed to recruit almost all of your being in just half a second, with one single goal: keep you safe.

Stress, at its core, is a survival mechanism. It’s a biological system designed to focus you. Not to make you uncomfortable.

So how do we calm ourselves down in moments like this?

The parasympathetic nervous system: your de-stress system

Just telling yourself to calm down doesn’t work. (Neither does adding on a bit of self-criticism, as I liked to do: “why does this even stress you out so much?!”)

If you want to reduce the magnitude of the stress response, the best thing you can do is to look at your body, and activate the in-built system that is designed for calm and relaxation.

The neurons that control the relaxation response, or the parasympathetic nervous system, exist in the lower neck and brainstem and in the pelvic area.

Its goal is homeostasis—bringing your body back to a state of calm and balance. It does that through a process called “downregulating” by triggering the opposite reactions of the sympathetic nervous system.

Source: Byjus.com

This is an incredible feature of our nervous system. When the stress response hits in a moment that you don’t want it—like when you’re about to present on Zoom—you have a system in your body you can rely on to calm yourself down.

All you need to do is learn how to use it.

Two levers to tap into your autonomic nervous system

The quickest stress relief tools will be tools that have a direct line to your autonomic nervous system.

You can think of your two branches as on a continuum, called “the arousal continuum”.

Based on Huberman Lab episode: The Science of Stress, Calm and Sleep

We’re always somewhere on this continuum. When the stress response hits, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated. In order to move ourselves down on the continuum, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

There are lots of ways to do this—like mild exercise, meditation, yoga, social connection, nature walks, etc.

But how about tools that you can use in the moment, without having to step away from what you’re doing?

There are two really cool and simple ways to do that:

1. Use your eyes

When we're stressed, we tend to get stuck in this narrow, tunnel vision with collapsed awareness where our entire conscious experience is dominated by the stressor.

When you notice this happening, you can consciously expand your awareness and expand your visual field. Go into panoramic vision where you can see as much of your environment as possible.

Relaxing your face and shifting into a wide peripheral vision signals to your brain that you’re in a safe and non-threatening environment—activating your parasympathetic nervous system.

The best thing about this is that you can do this any time, anywhere, without anyone noticing. I do it all the time and I can honestly say this little body-based trick has changed my life.

2. Use your breath

How you feel impacts how you breathe. But it also works the other way around: how you breathe impacts how you feel.

  • Fast breathing and emphasis on inhales = sympathetic activation

  • Slow breathing and emphasis on the exhale = parasympathetic activation

Once you understand this simple principle, you can experiment with which breathwork techniques work best for you.

Things like 1:2 breathing (exhale is double the duration of the inhale) or the physiological sigh (2 short inhales, long extended exhale).

These are two techniques you can easily do in the moment, and will quickly impact your autonomic arousal.

(If you want to know a bit more about the Why behind the What, I go into more detail in the post below.)

🔬 Let’s experiment

Next time the stress response hits…

  • See if you can stay very self-aware and observe what’s happening in your body. Don’t lose yourself in the feeling. Keep your awareness very broad and open. Feel your heart rate pulsing. Remind yourself that these are just physiological reactions.

  • Then, take conscious control of the situation by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. Slow down your breathing and extend your exhale. At the same time, expand your visual field. Pay attention to how your body feels.

  • Learn more about your nervous system. Two years ago, I took an incredible course called Nervous System Mastery. I’m joining the next cohort again because there’s so much to learn from the creator, Jonny Miller. If you’re interested, use my code CHARLOTTEGRYSOLLE at checkout for a $250 discount.

P.S. Next Stretch is all about an emotion we like to demonize but is incredibly powerful: frustration when we’re trying something new. Neuroscience shows us that embracing those uncomfortable feelings is exactly what we need for rapid and long-term learning, and impatience in dealing with frustration is why most people fail to achieve their goals.

If you think of someone else who may benefit from learning about this, you can invite them to sign up here.

Want to keep experimenting with me?

There are two ways we can work together:

  1. Create your Breathwork Toolkit. Book a free 1-1 session here. I’ll help you decide on the right breathwork techniques, based on your unique needs and challenges.

  2. Body-Based Productivity. BBP is based on two fundamental principles: i. Take care of your body and your mind will follow. ii. Leverage your body as a tool to think and work better. I offer personalized coaching and group workshops (I recently co-created a session for a Fortune500 cosmetics company.) Send me a note if you’d like more info.

(If you’re not looking for any of the above but do enjoy this newsletter and want to support my work, you’re more than welcome to help me cover some of the platform fees it takes to keep this newsletter running for free. 🥰)


or to participate.