A slightly deeper dive into the Autonomic Nervous System
In part 1 of this series about the body in conflict we referenced the fact that the emotions and the bodily responses that we experience during conflict -or any life event for that matter- are mediated by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Let’s take a look at what that really means.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that we generally don’t have control over, meaning that it will do its job without our conscious direction. It is roughly divided in three parts:
- The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS); responsible for readying the body for action through increased heart and breathing rate, release of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) and a host of other responses that come in handy when one needs to work, fight or flee.
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS); responsible for getting us to sleep, digesting our food, sexual arousal, repairing damage to bodily systems and other mechanisms to keep the system in working order.
- The Enteric Nervous System (ENS); in addition to obvious tasks related to digestive processes, the ENS is responsible for the production of the majority of serotonin in our body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that contributes to a wide array of bodily functions but is best known for its role in creating a feeling of well-being and happiness. The ENS has a mind of its own and works largely independent of the brain, which is why it is an important additional source of information: that gut feeling!
As stated in part 1, how we experience conflict and how we respond to conflict is in large part determined by the state of our autonomic nervous system. Now that we have identified the three parts that make up the ANS, we can take a closer look at these interactions.
Your Sympathetic Response
Conflict is always the consequence of a perception of threat. This threat can be physical, emotional, financial or status related. When we perceive threat, the autonomic nervous system jumps into action. Generally, we see activation of the sympathetic nervous system as the primary response; a readying of the body to respond to the threat by fighting or fleeing. Our heart and breathing rate increases, we start sweating, our blood pressure rises. While these responses are very useful when we are actually going to fight or run away, they generally are less helpful when we have a conflict at work or with our spouse.
One of the less useful features -in a modern context- of the fight or flight response is the narrowing of our conscious awareness. The body is primarily focused on survival and less important things, like hanging onto one’s job, are not so much in the picture. We also have less access to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which enables us to perform high level cognitive functions, such as situational analysis. Instead, the brain makes quick and dirty decisions of the yes- or- no and black- and- white variety. Obviously, this does not support thoughtful and nuanced discussion about difficult subjects.
In part 3 of this series we’ll discuss the parasympathetic nervous system and its role and contributions in conflict situations.