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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Your Nervous System and You

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of attention application techniques and other seemingly high-minded topics, I think it is imperative to discuss some of the core structure and function of the biological machinery that make you who you are.

For the sake of this post, I am going to only focus on two parts of the nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system kicks up its activity level in times of stress. You may know this activity increase as the "fight or flight" response. Pupils dilate, the heart pumps harder and faster, your lungs open up to get more oxygen into the bloodstream, you stop digesting to conserve more energy, you stop contracting your bladder, adrenaline is injected into your body and you start to heat up, so you start sweating, and your hairs stand on end to cool you down.

If your body were a car, the sympathetic nervous system would be the acceleration. It Pumps in more energy, giving you more strength and speed. This reaction is one that kicks into high gear when you are threatened, and your brain perceives fear. This "fight or flight" response restricts sexual arousal, stops digestion, and constipates among other things (gives a new meaning to the phrase "anal retentive"). The function of this response is to give you all the tools at your disposal to either fight the attacker or to run and keep you alive, and as unharmed as possible. This is the body interpreting the environment as dangerous.

The parasympathetic nervous system has a different modus operandi. Think of this as the brakes to the sympathetic nervous system. When activity kicks up here, different bodily responses kick into action. The heart rate slows, the inside of your nose moistens allowing for better smelling, the conveyor belt effect of your intestines (peristalsis) lets you digest sending nutrients into the body, and also stimulates sexual arousal. This is the body interpreting the environment as non-threatening, and is an appropriate place for rest. This is when your energy level is replenished.

The body has a mechanism that tries to keep the status quo at all times; this is called homeostasis. Think of it as the gravity that pulls you back to your normal resting biological state. This is your state when reading a book, taking out the trash, sitting at work, etc. If you were to maintain a specific biological state for a long period of time, your homeostasis would gravitate towards that new state, and become your new functioning rest state.

Both the "fight or flight" and "rest and digest" responses have certain long-term consequences. If the sympathetic stress state is maintained, you will most likely see irritability, a weakened immune system, difficulty concentrating due to the stress hormones and neurotransmitters floating around your body that actually impair the learning and thought process. You will have tense muscles, extreme eating habits, social withdrawal, a negative outlook, procrastination, and many more detrimental behaviors.

Now, if you have gone through a traumatic event like a divorce, or the death of a loved one, the intensity of the emotions may be so powerful that they will incite this "fight or flight" response to a certain degree, and the maintenance of this biological state may change your resting homeostasis effect, to now include one or multiple unhealthy thought and behavior patterns.

The difficulty in changing one's homeostatic state is that the current state one lives in, becomes their point of reference. You become inherently bound to your own perspective, and look for ways to validate the maintenance of your state with unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. This is how the body's homeostasis works against you. It is a shorthand response as to how "stressed" you should be in dealing with daily tasks.

But, all hope is not lost. It is possible to change your state, and there is always room for growth. The first step is in a gaining of knowledge and awareness as to which rules you are forced to adhere to. These biological rules are just one tiny way in which your perception, behavior, and emotions could be controlled through things outside your awareness and control. My goal here, is to give you the tools to disconnect yourself from homeostatic autopilot, put you back in the drivers seat and give you a road map for an increased quality of emotions and relationships.


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