Mental health is inseparably connected with our environment. Our bodies and minds are constantly working to help us adapt and respond to what’s going on around us.
This natural ability in large part thanks to our autonomic nervous system. It’s called autonomic because it works without us needing to think about it.
The autonomic nervous system runs throughout our body and has two main “branches” that work together to keep us balanced between activity and rest: the “gas pedal”, and the the “brakes”.
When we need extra energy, for example to run and catch a bus, the gas pedal takes the lead: our bodies speed up, the heart pumps harder and sets our muscles up for action, helping us move faster than usual.
Once we catch the bus and have hopped on, the body’s brakes can take the lead: the heart returns to a calmer beat, our breathing gets deeper and our muscles relax and recover.
Rest and digest: the autonomic nervous system goes into recovery mode: our heartbeat is regular, our muscles loosen, and deeper breaths replenish our body’s oxygen. At the same time, our digestive system kicks in when our bodies know it’s safe to “rest and digest”. When the brakes take the lead for a longer period of time, the nervous system can recover from stress.
THE GAS PEDAL
Move and react: the nervous system speeds up. Our hearts pump fresh oxygen to our arms and legs, readying our muscles for action. Our senses are focused and our breathing gets faster. When the gas pedal is dominant, we are “on” and energized. In dangerous situations, the gas pedal can send us us into “overdrive”, which you might also know as “fight or flight”.
Under normal conditions, we rarely notice how our nervous system keeps us balanced. But in new or challenging conditions, our body has to work harder than usual to adapt.
You can become an expert for your own nervous system by observing how it responds in everyday situations. For example, as you are reading this, your attention is focused on the text, but the muscles in your arms and legs probably aren’t in overdrive. The gas pedal is helping you focus and process information, but the brakes are keeping you balanced.
Awareness for how your body balances activation and recovery is a proven protective factor for mental health.