I was driving down the street one day on my way to yoga class. I was having a pleasant drive and enjoying myself as much as you can driving in Los Angeles. I noticed a car coming up quickly behind me in my rear view mirror and he moved into the lane next to me to pass me. We both were stopped next to each other at the light 20 seconds later. He was then behind me again, because the car ahead of hi was turning and had to wait. He passed me soon enough and then was in front of me at another light. The car in front of him wasn’t going fast enough, so he switched lanes again to basically be next to me at the following stop.

It hit me that this guy was in a rush to get wherever he wanted to go and was getting frustrated and stressed, while I was moving at the same pace without any worries. These two scenarios sum up the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) and Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). I was in PSNS and he was SNS.

First, let’s talk about the ANS, which controls all aspects of our function that doesn’t require thought. This includes breathing, digestion, circulation, sweating, and pupil size. If we had to think about every heart beat, we’d forget when focused on finding the next Pokemon Go character and may not make it through to show off our conquests.

We have some control over certain aspects of our ANS. Holding your breath is one example, but with training we can manipulate our heart rate. There are even monks who can control their body temperature. No matter what, not having to think about anything that affects our survival allows us to be unique creative thinkers and movers.

We naturally switch back and forth between our nervous systems throughout the day, but we should spend most of our time in the PSNS. This is when we can go about our business with no worries.

Had the driver who was land hopping stopped short in front of me, the SNS system would kick in to help me respond. You may have heard of the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. It’s prepping our body to respond to danger by diverting blood flow to the muscles, freeing up glucose for energy to respond, and improving our eyesight.

You can see how the two systems affect the function of our organs.

Parsympathetic Organ Sympathetic
Relaxed State Excited
Constricts Pupil Eye Dilates Pupil
Stimulates Salvation Tongue Inhibits Salvation
Constricts Bronchi Lungs Relaxes Bronchi
Inhibits Heart Heart Accelerates Heart Rate
Stimulates Digestive Activity Stomach Inhibits Digestion
Stimulates Gallbladder Liver Stimulates Glucose Release
None Kidney Secreation of Epinephrine and Noreepinephrine
Contracts Bladder Bladder Relaxes Bladder
Relaxes Rectum Rectum Contracts Rectum

Yet, the ANS has not caught up to our current life practices. We can be triggered by more and more external stimuli in our lives. Check your heart rate after the ding of an incoming text message. Did it increase? How do you feel standing outside versus under fluorescent lights? Driving in traffic? Waiting for test results? These are some of the many ways you can be in the SNS versus the PSNS.

So what can we do about reducing stress? More information is in our article How to Reduce Stress.


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