Nervous System Science and Mindful Awareness

Our brains and bodies are constantly taking in important information about our needsand surroundings through our five senses and felt experience.  

That information affects our entirely physiology — perhaps most notably through our nervous system. This is a system that we share with all animals. It allows beings of all species to respond to what is happening around them by processing what they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell and then activating bodily functions based on that information.

The specific part of the nervous system that we are going to talk about here allows animals to both stay safe by reacting to danger and threats, and to take a break, rest, and regain energy and strength when the coast is clear.

Our nervous system has two main parts: the central nervous system (made up of our brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is made up of another two parts: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervoussystem is the one we look to most to help understand our experiences through mindfulness. The autonomic nervous system works, as the name implies, totally automatically. It requires no conscious work to function. However, its effects have a big impact on our conscious decision making. For this reason, improving our awareness of this automatic system can be very helpful. Though we can’t control its response within our physiology, we can control our choices. This is where mindfulness comes in.

This system has two main responses: through the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that takes care of us when we’re stressed or threatened — the fight/flight/freeze responses. When that system is activated, the body prioritizes survival responses above less “essential” functions. Theparasympathetic nervous system is the one that calm us down, allows our bodies to relax, digest food, and do complex mental work — the rest/digest responses. 

Many of our emotional experiences connect to responses from these systems — whether we’re aware of them or not. Frustration, anger, sadness, and annoyance boil down to survival responses: we feeling something to be a threat to us: to our understanding, our safety, our community, our worldview, our self-control… the list goes on.

But, there is a disconnect here. The part of our brain that is in charge of regulating these threat-reaction fight/flight/freeze responses is very helpful for threats that are timeless and common to all beings — threats like avalanches, predators, and flash floods. These are threats with a clear start and finish: the problem is there, our response is triggered to help us survive it, and then the threat is gone. But most of our modern major stressors are somewhat more complex in nature: school and work stress, political atmosphere, family disagreements or conflict, finances, and oppressive social systems have a stronger hold on our stress responses than the ancient threats for which our brains were able to evolve. For this reason, the parasympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response doesn’t always help us to escape threats and stress as well as it once did.

Mindfulness offers us a way to untangle all of this, and be present with ourselves in the present moment instead of letting our body’s responses run away with our emotions and behaviors.  Mindfulness doesn’t look to change the stressors themselves — it looks to offer us a lens of greater peace and acceptance through which to examine them.

When we see clearly from a place of calm, rather than through a stress response designed to help us run from flash floods and fight off hungry wild animals, we can take care of our experiences and feelings with love and compassion instead of judgement and avoidance. Then we are better equipped to both cope with and solve the challenges we face.

We do this by:

  1. noticing our stress (sympathetic nervous system) responses

  2. thanking those feelings for helping to protect us

  3. allowing them to settle before we make a decision or act on our feeling

The first step to this is knowing what a nervous system response feels and looks like. Discuss as a family how many of the feelings below you can remember feeling during a time you had a big emotion. Pick a few that you’re going to keep a watch for, and check out the link to download a PDF matching game to help your family remember these responses so they can look out for them! 

Remember, it’s not bad to have a sympathetic response — it’s our body trying to protect us. But it’s up to us to notice if that system is truly helping us, or if we need to calm down before we can make a choice that will solve the problem and make us and others feel good in the long term.

(P.S. Want to learn more about the Nervous System and other brain science as a family? Check out Neuroscience for Kids from Dr. Chudler at the University of Washington!)

A Quick Guide To the Autonomic Nervous System

Parasympathetic Nervous System

Sympathetic Nervous System

Response Rest-and-Digest Fight-Flight-or-Freeze
Purpose Body can rest Body can defend itself from a perceived threat
Brain Prefrontal Cortex (thoughts) can help the Amygdala (emotions and fear) understand how to respond. Prefrontal Cortex (thoughts) is “put on hold,” so the Amygdala (emotions and fear) makes quick fear/safety-based decisions.
General Body Calm and Safe Tense and Afraid
Shuts Down Stops fear reactions, adrenaline production. Stops body functions that are not critical to survival.
Enables Empathy, decisions, sense of safety, human connections, body functions. Reflexes (like taking your hand out of hot water), running, fighting, and/or hiding.
Heart Heart rate slows Heart rate quickens
Lungs Breath deepens Breath quickens and shortens
Muscles Muscles relax Muscles contract, become tensed for movement
Pupils Pupils get small Pupils get big
Stomach Stomach digests food and poops easily Digestion and pooping is slowed
Urine Peeing is regular and easy Tummy is tense, less peeing
 

Feeling, Thoughts, and Emotions: The Roads to Behavior

Within the practice of mindfulness, we often talk about three categories of experiences to be mindful of: our feelings, our thoughts, and our emotions. These three work together to produce our actions and behaviors.

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There are a number of theories over the order and interaction between these factors, but for the purposes of mindfulness all that really matters is our awareness of each of them. First let’s set up some working understandings of each:

Feeling

Feeling is perhaps the category modern life separates us from most carelessly. When you ask someone how they feel, they’ll tell you about their thoughts and emotions. Important pieces, but not the entire story. Feeling, in this sense, relates directly to the felt bodily experience. You may have participated in a body scan meditation before. That’s feeling. We notice the lump in our throat, the moisture in our palms, the beating of our heart, the sun’s heat against our skin, the feeling of our feet in our shoes, the throbbing in the head, the lightness in our chest… these true and unquestionable sensations in the body.

 

Emotion

Frequently we jump right past feeling to emotion. We are angry or sad or glad, but we aren’t necessarily aware of what each piece of the bodily experience informing that conclusion is. In actuality, our heart is thumping and our faced is flushed. And then we label that experience “anger.” It may be the experience that realizing we are experiencing anger makes us MORE angry, or it may be that we can use our awareness to soften to the experience and tame the bodily sensation. But more on that later.

There are multitude of nuanced labels that we use to label our emotional experience, and many are interrelated. How do we know helplessness from fear? Often it’s the third piece of the puzzle: our thoughts.

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Thoughts

Thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves about what we feel and about our emotional label. Our palms are sweaty, we experience anger, and we’ve notice that our child is painting on the walls. It may be the case that your physiological anger is due to that, and it may be the case that you are carrying some of the physiological experience from emotions lingering from your work day. Either way, the thought “NOT PAINT ON THE WALLS!!!” is likely to enter your equation then.

Humans like explanations. When we experience a sensation or attribute an emotional label to our experience, a thought meant to rationalize that experience is soon to follow. It may or may not be “correct.” In a classic experiment on this concept, scientifically called “misattribution of arousal” (aka, “picking the ‘wrong’ story to explain why you feel the way you do”) researchers had a woman survey two groups of men and then give them her phone number. One group of men had just crossed a shaky suspension bridge, while the other had crossed a safer, more stable bridge. The men who had just crossed the shaky bridge were more likely to call her, supporting the researchers’ idea that the men would attribute their experience of adrenaline and excitement, which was actually from the bridge, to the woman.

So perhaps your child isn’t coloring on the walls, but is pestering you about finding a particular toy. And perhaps your body is stressed from work, but in a spiral you assume your child is causing you this stress and respond accordingly. In mindfulness we are less worried about correctness, and more worried about awareness and response over reaction.

 

These three factors mush together in one big pot of experience, typically. And we might be triggered at any point in that big pot to move to action/behavior. There are two types of behaviors, in this idea: a mindless reaction, and a mindful response. Typically, we have an experience and we react. Forever. It’s a constant cycle. Here’s one example of feelings, emotions, and thoughts connecting to each other and spiraling out of control, triggered by a challenging math problem. If this cycle were to continue, the child might go from the sensation of feeling restless and squished to an emotion of anger or helplessness.

With mindfulness, of course, we aim to turn that reaction into a mindful response. To become aware of each point of influence (feelings, thoughts, emotions), accept them without judgement, and then use mindfulness tools to take back control on the cycle of experience. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions will arrive, but we have the ability to accept them without anxiety or needs to act on them and, by accepting them, be informed by them towards ways to respond most productive to getting our needs met. That is, after all, what all this stuff is going on FOR. Two ways this chart could look differently, by generating awareness early on and letting thoughts, feelings, and emotions inform mindful responses.

Above, the child noticed herself telling herself she was worried and afraid. Noticing that feeling, she pauses and realizing she needs to ask for help. Asking for help, perhaps from parents at home or directly from her teacher, her thought pattern changes to reinforce the idea that there are people surrounding her and supporting her.

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In this chart, the child remembered about mindfulness in time to catch the tightness in his chest. He remembered his mindful breathing, which restored a sense of calm by kicking in his parasympathetic nervous system. Calming down restored his confidence in his ability to regulate his body, and reminded him that his experience of worry and fear was telling him he needed to reach out to the tools and support provided to him to solve the math problem.
You’ll notice that these charts do continue even after the mindful response. The response itself creates a new thought, feeling, or emotion. It always does. We cannot really turn experience off. We can increase awareness of its various food sources — through thought, feeling, and emotion — and make use awareness to make decisions that actually meet the needs our experience is revealing.

 

Let’s revisit that triangle at the top.

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