Siddharth Ashvin Shah, M.D., M.P.H.
Founder and CEO
It functions in the background whether we ask it to or not
Any stress, both positive stress (excitement) and negative stress (nervousness), involves the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS functions in the background every second of our lives. It regulates the human body’s most basic regulatory processes, including breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
When a threat is detected in our environment, the ANS is spurred to turn off non-essential functions and gear up others in preparation for a fight/flight/freeze response.
Our bodies, brains, and behaviors are tuned to respond to a threat to survival.
If you are alive, you’ve felt ANS physiological manifestations of arousal. A racing heart. A throbbing head. Visual funkiness. Pent up energy in your muscles. Those manifestations are a result of elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, pupillary dilation, heightened sensory alertness and re-routing of blood flows to support defensive action, among other protective and preparatory measures.
This happens even if the perceived threat doesn’t require physical action – and that’s part of the problem.
When the ANS is chronically hyper-aroused, bodily responses that are intended to prepare the body to respond to an imminent survival threat may become maladaptive, thereby creating breakdowns in the body. These breakdowns can take various forms, including new physical problems, triggering flare-ups of old conditions, or worsening chronic conditions. See table below for more symptoms.
Maybe chronic ANS hyperarousal has happened to us before, or we are in the thick of ANS hyperarousal right now. The good news is that it does not need to be permanent. The goal of practicing wellbeing is the ability to have some locus of control over our bodies, brains, and behavior.
With adequate attention and practice of resiliency techniques, we actually have the ability to reduce unnecessary activation of our ANS, both in the immediate and long term.