The ANS, its relevance to Healing

By George Gintilas (1998)

The Basics – What is the ANS?

The ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) is a group of nerves that connect the major physiological control centres of the brain to practically all the body’s tissues and organs. The ANS can be separated into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

The Sympathetic nervous system is concerned with bodily mobilization and the expenditure of energy. It controls the commonly named ‘flight or fight’ response; that is, it prepares us for physical action to respond to emergency situations. It does this by stimulating the heart, dilating the bronchi, contracting the arteries, and inhibiting the digestive system. This system is not always active.

The Parasympathetic system is concerned with the conservation of bodily energy. It controls the relaxation response – the calm, slowing down within. This is the opposite of the Sympathetic system. It prepares us for feeding, digestion and rest. It balances out the role of the sympathetic system. This system is active most of the time.

The Sympathetic system is more reactive and automatic whereas, the Parasympathetic is more attuned to influence from the conscious rational mind.

There is also another major difference between the two systems. Only the sympathetic nervous system is connected to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and produce hormones that influence sexual development and monitor urine. They also produce two hormones commonly known as the ‘arousal’ hormones. These hormones when released help to prepare for an emergency by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, eye pupils and perspiration.

The sympathetic nervous system is a quick response system. The adrenal hormones act in times when a sustained arousal is required.

Physically, the ANS originates from the lower areas/functions of the brain (limbic system) and runs to the back of the brain and then down the spinal cord and into the nervous system throughout the body. It is made up of all the nerves that are not in the central nervous system – the brain and the spinal cord (including the associated cranial and spinal nerves).

More specifically, biologically speaking, the nerves of the Sympathetic system mostly originate in the thoracic and lumbar regions of the spinal cord, receiving messages from the hypothalamus, which is in the limbic system (often called the mammalian or emotional brain).

The nerves of the Parasympathetic system originate in the midbrain (the top part of the spinal cord at the base of the brain) and in the sacral (seat) part of the spinal cord.

In brief, the ANS controls the actions of the:

1) Glands,

2) The functions of the respiratory system

3) Circulatory system

4) Digestive system

5) Urogenital system and

6) Involuntary muscles in these systems and in the skin.

Connections to the ANS

We are discovering now how our mind/thoughts and mood influence the ANS, that was once thought independent of the thinking conscious brain. The ANS was named such because it normally operates without conscious control. That is, you don’t have to think about how fast you want your heartbeat to beat or how to consciously direct your clotting cells to physical heal a bleeding flesh wound. Your internal organs seem to run automatically and seem to know how to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium/balance). However we are discovering more and more, that just because the ANS can function without conscious control does not mean that thoughts and feelings cannot affect its activity.

Some evidence on how mental processes and emotions influence the ANS and its physiology can be found in the use of lie detector tests. The lie detector monitors blood pressure, pulse rate, respiratory rate and skin resistance. When a person becomes aroused, excited, emotionally upset, frightened, or just more alert, the detector picks up the changes in the body. However lie detectors are not very accurate (and therefore not accepted as evidence in many courts) because innocent people afraid of the test can affect the machine simply by their thoughts and feelings in their body. Conversely people who are liars have been found to beat the detector by training themselves in their reactions. Such trained people can voluntary control the ANS.

This ability to control seemingly automatic responses has been documented further by Elmer Green, the director of the biofeedback laboratory at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He has conducted extensive studies with exceptional individuals such as Swami Rama (Indian Yogi) to control consciously many of their physiological processes such as respiration, skin resistance, heart rate, blood flow, body temperature and electrical brain activity.

Such show of control provides evidence that destructive thoughts and emotions may trigger serious diseases, including heart attacks and stroke.

The ANS and your Emotions

The evidence is accumulating that our subconscious mind has physiological responses to our emotions. For each emotion our body responds: 1) Anger – our blood pressure goes up; 2) Fear – our skin turns pale; 3) embarrassment – we blush, and many more.

Therapy works in a way that allows the ANS to correct itself in the body. It functions on the premise that the body (including the ANS) knows what it needs to heal itself. The role of therapy is to provide that space and awareness where the client can sufficiently allow the ANS and Subconscious to do its job in healing itself.

Therapy is designed to release the original emotional cause of a particular emotionally based problem. There are a number of views on how emotions function in our body and therefore how important the ANS is to the release of this emotion. Three main views exist.

View 1: Biological

Biological psychologists tend to focus and view emotions as based on arousal and depression and view emotions as being primarily bodily or physical reactions. Reactions that are controlled automatically by the ANS. The purpose of emotions is to make your body perform some kind of action, such as fighting or fleeing. The Sympathetic nervous system arouses you to handle the fight and flight response as well as the sexual climax. The Parasympathetic nervous system acts to depress or slow down those bodily functions that are aroused by the sympathetic system.

View 2: Intra-Psychic Experience

Some psychologists view emotions as an intra-psychic experience that involves inner feelings rather than physiological reactions. They divide emotions into various types of feeling states such as fear, anger, love, hate and lust. The people in this camp believe that how you perceive and feel about a situation determines your bodily reactions, rather than the other way around as with the biological view above.

View 3: Learned Behaviour Responses

This view is held by those who believe that emotions are a learned reaction/pattern. You don’t have a feeling of fear, but a fearful reaction to some external event/stimulus. You don’t have depression, but more a big inactivity or unresponsiveness. You do patterns of behaviour that have been learned in the past. Psychiatrist Curt Richter conducted experiments with rats that showed how the ANS can adapt itself, recover and even improve after a traumatic situation if the rat (and therefore the ANS) is given hope of resolving the situation.

Recent theories and research

Research in the new science of psychoneuroimmunology shows that various attitudes and emotional reactions in the human body affect the immune system. For example, the endocrine system weakens when there is a dominance of repressed, bottled up danger emotions such as pain, anger, and fear. It is stimulated as a result of increased expression of such positive emotions as pleasure and love. Evidence shows that our emotions and thoughts “talk” with the billions of defence cells in our immune system. The pioneering work to understand how this communication between mind and body takes place is fast developing thanks to the work (in part) of Candace Pert PhD.

The immune system itself is a vast network of interrelated organs and chemical messenger substances, along with nerve fibres in the bone marrow, the thymus gland, the spleen, and the lymph nodes. Dr. Janet Hranicky, having been involved in education and research for a number of years, developed a model that teaches people how to consciously participate in influencing the functioning of this vast self-regulatory and healing system of the body when an illness such as cancer develops. She has observed that an important enhancement in self-healing seems to occur precisely when a patient makes a decision to get well.

The limbic-hypothalamic system of the brain is known as the major mind-body connector modulating the responses of the endocrine, immune, and autonomic nervous systems in response to mental suggestions and beliefs. Sustaining a belief that recovery is possible can mobilize a healing response by activating all these major systems of mind-body communication and healing.

The repression/blockage (old patterning) of emotion and its effects on the sympathetic nervous system and then on the immune system is an example of what is meant by the connection between stress and disease. In addition, when we are not getting our basic, individual psychological needs met, we will experience emotional distress. Prolonged emotional distress that is bottled up over time (especially childhood) causes our bodies to experience a chronic stress response which again causes an overactive sympathetic nervous system, and eventual immune and/or neuro-endocrine exhaustion which leads to disease and injury.

Neuropeptides, the ANS and Emotion

Candace Pert, is a PhD pharmacologist and professor at Georgetown University. She is a new and heavy scientific hand entering the world of healing with ‘proof’ of the vital role played by our emotions and the ANS. She fully believes that the mind is not just in the brain but in the entire body. She believes that the vehicle that the mind and body use to communicate with each other is the chemistry of emotion. The chemicals in question are molecules, short chains of amino acids called peptides and receptors, that Pert believes to be the “biochemical correlate of emotion.” The peptides can be found in your brain, but also in your stomach, your muscles, your glands and all your major organs, sending messages back and forth. The ANS provides in part the highway for these peptides. After decades of research, Pert is finally able to make it clear and ‘prove’ how emotion creates the bridge between mind and body.

The following is a quote from Candace Pert, taken from an interview by Lynn Grodzki (bolding added). SOURCE: ISNIP Conference, September 23, 1995. E-mail: Downloaded from the Internet.

“Experiments show that the hippocampus area of the brain [part of the limbic system] is the access or gateway into the whole emotional experience. Almost every variety of peptide receptor is found in the hippocampus. Through the peptide network, which is anything that has peptide receptors on it, you can access different memories, mood states or developmental stages. Strong emotions are the key variable that make us bother to remember things.

There is a lot of evidence that memory occurs at the point of synapse, there are changes that take place in the receptors. The sensitivity of the receptors are part of memory and pattern storage. But the peptide network expends beyond the hippocampus, to organs, tissue, skin, muscle and endocrine glands. They all have peptides receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means this emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just the brain. The autonomic nervous system is pivotal to this entire understanding. Its importance is much more subtle than has been thought. Every peptide that I have ever mapped and more, can be found in the autonomic nervous system. There is an emotional coding to the way our autonomic patterns are elaborated.”

In Summary

The ANS is a critical highway, with links to all the major organs of the body. This link, through a string of nerves (neurotransmitters) allows the neuropeptides, the chemical messengers of the body to travel to the organs and pass their message to the receptors in the cell walls of the organs. It’s not the nerves that do the work, it’s the chemicals they transmit that creates the action/response (discovered by the Austrian, Otto Loewi in 1920). These chemicals are being mapped out now. Scientists are discovering that there are hundreds of different types of these peptides.

There are different types of messenger molecules flowing throughout the body back and forth and not always from the brain. Thus Pert’s claim that the ‘mind is in the whole body’. When we have an emotion, it shows up in the body as a pattern of peptides linking to appropriate receptors in the various organs and muscles of the body, producing a reaction.

The question then is: What causes a particular set of peptides into instigating their patterned response and thus producing a particular emotion and it’s physiological counterpart?

We can map out and discover more and more detail of the physical/chemical representations of what is going on in our bodies which seems to produce more and more physical/chemical solutions to our problems. (So if you have XYZ problem, then take XYZ chemical to resolve it).

This is not the most fulfilling solution because it’s not the most human solution. Where a drug is necessary that has to be intelligently selected and physically administered to produce a result – is not a very humane solution. Now that emotions are being discovered to be heavily correlated with the neuropeptides flowing through the ANS and entire body, we will more and more find emotional solutions to our problems.

This is an exciting leap forward and a revolutionary one because; emotions have always fallen under the banner of an energetic system and not a chemical one. We have created the bridge now, a new global paradigm shift. This paves the way for our thinking to seek solutions that are energetically rather than chemically based. Which then leads to the next obvious step of the role that our thinking and the major part that it plays in determining our health.

Emotion and thinking is closer akin to our human beingness. Whereas, chemicals correlate more to our human doingness like machines. We are not machines.

(C) – Copyright George Gintilas (1998)