The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

I read an article, in which the author explained the importance of reducing stress in our personal and professional lives. As I was reading the article, it became clear that the effects of stress, should we not take active, purposive measures to reduce them, can have negative effects on our health and on our relationships. I thought back to the last discussion I posted within this blog and how being emotionally upset inhibits our ability to think straight and make good decisions. The same thing happens when we are stressed, because stress impacts our emotional states. I then started thinking about the neuroscience behind stress and emotional states, and I thought that I would share some of these thoughts with you. As you likely gleaned from the title of this particular post, I want to briefly discuss the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous systems (PNS), respectively.

Although it may sound like it would be the more pleasant of the two nervous systems, the Sympathetic Nervous System is the one that, when aroused, involves damaging chemical and physiological changes within the body. While not all stress is bad (good stress is called eustress), it is the annoying and/or chronic stress, which is harmful. When you experience a stressor, your body (mind) reacts by releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline/noradrenaline) into the blood. In addition to these, corticosteroids (cortisol) are also released into your blood. As I am sure you can imagine, there are physiological effects associated with the release of these chemicals. The release of epinephrine (to your arms) and norepinephrine (to your legs), which serve as vasoconstrictors, result in increased pulse and heart rate and faster and shallow breathing. The result of cortisol being released into the blood is a diminishing of your immune system and inhibited neurogenesis (growth and development of nervous tissue). So what does this all mean? It means that when these chemical changes happen within our bodies (brains), we lose significant control over how we are able to respond, which helps to explain why many people respond in similar fashion, which is emotionally and often destructively. But, it does not mean that we are without complete control. Developing emotional intelligence enables us to develop an awareness of our emotional states such that we are able to take immediate action. One such ‘immediate action’ that we, as emotionally intelligent leaders, can take is activating our Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is important, because it is necessary for returning our minds and bodies to a relaxed state and for helping our immune systems to operate at their fullest capabilities. If you have heard it recommended that people engage in deep breathing exercises to calm them down, this is a practice associated with activating one’s Parasympathetic Nervous System. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and the secretion of oxytocin, which serve as vasodilators (opening your blood flow). Because opening the one’s blood flow will help one achieve feeling warmer, one’s blood pressure and pulse rates drop, one’s breathing slows and becomes deeper, and one’s immune system is allowed to operate at its fullest capability. Not only does this renewal process return us to a calm and relaxed state, it is the state that we must be in if we hope to achieve mindfulness.

Being able to recognize situations that activate our Sympathetic Nervous Systems and being able to take action to activate one’s Parasympathetic Nervous Systems increases one’s chances of sustaining emotionally intelligent performance. If you have ever been told or have heard someone else be told to “sleep on it”, before making a decision or taking action, it is likely that h/she was being provided the opportunity to renew, or activate his/her Parasympathetic Nervous System, so that the most effective decision or action could be made or implemented.

What are your personal experiences with this? Are you able to recognize when you are in a state, which precludes your ability to make effective and rational decisions? Are you able to take measures to activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System in order to calm yourself and make more effective, rational decisions? And, if so, what are your practices and techniques for doing so?

Dr. Mark

About the Author:

Emotional Intelligence and Organizational Change Leader Mark gained his leadership experience by serving over 20 years as a member of the US Army. He served in a variety of executive leadership positions within multiple Department of Defense organizations, assessing employee performance, advancing positive social change, and using his knowledge of emotional intelligence to build resonant relationships with all members of the organization. Mark holds a Doctorate in Management-Leadership and Organizational Change from Walden University.

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