When it comes to mental health, the focus has always been very much on the mind. We are regularly told that it’s our thoughts that determine how we feel, and how we respond to and cope with stress. But it turns out that that’s not the full story. Nowhere near.
Recent developments in neuroscience mean that it’s now the nervous system rather than the mind that is being positioned as the centrepiece of emotional well-being.
The nervous system can be defined as a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body.
The Accelerator & Brake
The traditional view was that there are only two aspects to the nervous system.
Firstly, there’s the sympathetic aspect, which acts like an accelerator, increasing our energy and arousal levels to meet the demands of a specific task when required. This branch of the nervous system is recruited in the stress response when our body is activated to fight or flee from danger.
The parasympathetic branch on the other hand is like a brake, and is responsible for the ‘freeze’ or ‘shut down’ response. The brain chooses this pathway when we perceive that we are in a life-threatening situation in which fight or flight are not options. This response is often seen when we experience a traumatic event.
The Drivers Seat
However, a third part of the nervous system has now been identified and is referred to as the social engagement system. This branch of the nervous system is in the driver’s seat when we feel safe.
We now know that human beings scan their environments with the central issue being safety. For example, hearing a twig snapping behind you may activate the fight or flight response if the nervous system interprets this as a threat.
In contrast, when approached by a loving partner, our nervous system quickly reads ‘safety’ as exemplified by the physiology of his/her body and face, especially perhaps their eyes and voice tone.
This scanning process happens not only in the brain but in the gut. Threats in the environment are detected directly by the body and messages are then sent up to the brain. This process is called Neuroception, and it’s not a conscious process.
We can proceed quickly to fight or flight without having to consciously process the information, as to take the time to do so may not result in survival.
What’s Your Gut Telling You?
We know that the brain is a storyteller, constructing narratives about ourselves and the world. What isn’t so well known is that it does this by taking its cues from the state of the nervous system at any given moment.
In other words, if your nervous system is in a flight or fight state, you will perceive the world as a dangerous place and will also be more likely to have a negative self-perception. It also means that no amount of positive thinking will change these perceptions all the time your nervous system is still perceiving threats.
“There are various ways of changing the state of your nervous system and taking you into safety, which involve changing the physiological state of the body and the information that is being received by the gut and relayed to the brain,” says Khody Damestani, co-founder of mental fitness company, MyMindPal.
“These include deep breathing with an emphasis on a slow exhalation, producing certain sounds and vocalisations, and spending time with people that you feel connected to.
“Regulating our emotions and managing stress has as much to do with our bodies as it does our minds. Learning ways to impact the state of our nervous system reveals another important route to emotional well-being.”