The two main branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) are the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems. They play very active roles in our experience of emotion. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) functions with our body’s efforts to rest and digest. When we rest, more blood goes to our belly to digest food. We are more emotionally calm. A good metaphor is to think of it as our body’s brake system. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is more involved in our body working to fight or take flight. It helps for a quick release of energy. It is more of an accelerator system. Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) might increase heart rate, sweat and muscle tone as the body readies to fight, though many of us are unaware of our own bodies responding in these ways. Often the work of either of the two main branches of the ANS is unconscious.
Role of the ANS in Emotions
Sadness, grief, or shame might draw us into a more lethargic state such as that of the Parasympathetic Nervous System working in low arousal. Muscles slack, heart rate is lower, and breathing is shallower when the PNS is engaged. Emotions of rage, fear, anger, and excitement are much more associated with the Sympathetic Nervous System’s fight and flight activation.[i] The amygdala and the body’s stress response system are also involved in the SNS. By becoming more aware of our bodies, we become more aware of our emotional life and the life of the world. We also become more aware of how the fruits of the Spirit are working inside of us or how bad fruits are working inside of us.
Some of the most inspiring work to draw unconscious feelings into awareness is being done by the psychotherapist Babette Rothschild. She studies the function of the body’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) especially in how it helps carry out commands sent to the body from the brain.
[i] Babette Rothschild, The Body Remembers: Volume 2, (New York: Norton, 2017), 38.