Good morning Rebecca! Hope you are feeling refreshed from your weekend and ready for the week ahead.
I've been reflecting on how much I refer to the nervous system in sessions, and realised that maybe I need to give a more detailed explanation of what, exactly, the nervous system is, and how it relates to our emotional wellbeing. So here goes:
The Nervous System: An Overview
The nervous system is a web of cells, tissues, and organs that serves plays a pivotal role in the functioning of the human body. Its primary function is to facilitate communication between different parts of the body, ensuring that every system works harmoniously together. Think of it as the body's master control center.
Key Components of the Nervous System
The Brain: Our cognitive command center, the brain interprets sensory information, stores memories, and orchestrates our daily activities, as well as being where our sense of self resides.
The Spinal Cord: This elongated structure extends from the base of the brain and serves as a bridge, transmitting messages between the brain and the rest of the body, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system.
Nerves: Nerves act as the information highways of the nervous system, conveying electrical signals (nerve impulses) between the brain, spinal cord, and various organs, including the heart, lungs, stomach, and more.
Neurons: Neurons are the fundamental building blocks of the nervous system. These specialized cells transmit information using electrical and chemical signals. Neurons come in diverse forms, each tailored for specific functions.
Supporting Cells: Glial cells, or neuroglia, provide critical support and nourishment to neurons. They are instrumental in maintaining the structural integrity of the nervous system and aiding in information processing.
The Nervous System at Work
The nervous system operates through an intricate and rapid process of information transmission, with two key players: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight or Flight): When faced with stress or danger, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action. It stimulates the heart to beat faster, dilates airways for increased oxygen intake, and redirects blood flow away from the digestive system. This response primes the body for action, preparing us to confront or flee from a threat.
Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest and Digest): In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system promotes relaxation and restoration. It slows the heart rate, constricts airways, and enhances digestive function, allowing our bodies to recover, rest, and digest nutrients efficiently.
The Vagus Nerve: A Key Player in Autonomic Function
At the heart of this relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems lies the vagus nerve. This important cranial nerve, the longest in the body, plays a central role in regulating heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
The vagus nerve connects the brain to the heart, influencing heart rate variability, and extends its reach to the lungs, stomach, and other vital organs. It acts as a two-way communicator, relaying information about our emotional state and stress levels to the brain while also modulating our body's response to these signals.
Understanding the vagus nerve's involvement in the body's autonomic functions provides valuable insights into emotional regulation, stress management, and overall well-being. It underscores the intimate connection between our mental and physical health.
When we are experiencing chronic or traumatic stress, our sympathetic nervous system is overactive and our parasympathetic nervous system is underactive. This is in part what leads to difficulties with sleep, appetite, cognition and mood, and long term can lead to a range of health issues.
I hope you have stayed with me through this fairly dry explanation! Next week, I'll give you the rundown on some of the strategies that help switch your autonomic nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic, and help you manage and recover from stress.