The autonomic nervous system is made up of two branches: the sympathetic branch – the “gas pedal”, and the parasympathetic branch – the “brakes”. These two work together to ensure a balance between activation and recovery. When action is called for, the gas pedal takes the lead and accelerates. When recovery is possible, the brakes slow our body back down. Under normal conditions, we rarely notice this amazing ability that our body has. But in crisis situations, our body has to deal with a higher amount of stress than it is used to.
There are so many ways of thinking and talking about mental health. No matter how different our opinions may be, we do all have one thing in common: a autonomic nervous system that responds similarly to stress, and to wellbeing. It’s called “autonomic” because if works “automatically” without us having to think about it. However, we can also control it if need be.
In situations where we need less energy, the autonomic nervous system relaxes into recovery mode: our heartrate is regular, our blood flows from our extremities back to the heart, our muscles can relax, our gaze might soften and our breathing can become deeper and slower. At the same time, our digestive system becomes more active because it gets the signal that it is safe to “rest and digest”. When the brakes are dominant for a longer period of time, the nervous system can recover from stress.
THE GAS PEDAL
In situations that call for extra energy, for example a sprint or jumping out of harm’s way, the nervous system speeds up. Our puls rises, our heart pumps fast to deliver fresh oxygen to our arms and legs and our muscles are ready for action. Our gaze “sharpens”, our senses are focused on the task at hand and our breathing gets faster. When the gas pedal is active, we are attentive and full of energy. In dangerous situations, the gas pedal jumpstarts us into overdrive, which many people know as the “fight or flight” response.
You can become an expert for your own nervous system by observing how it responds in everyday situations. For example, as you are reading this, your attention is focused on the text, but the muscles in your arms and legs probably aren’t in overdrive. The gas pedal is active, which helps us pay attention, but the brakes are keeping you balanced. Becoming aware of how your body reacts to stress and wellbeing can help you take care of your stress and recovery curve.
Many of the activities that we’ve included can be used to practice this ability. We’ve included some questions after each activity that can help you with this, if you want.