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