We like to think we are in control. And much of the time, we are! We can control our responses to the world around us and our choices in the 6 Essentials (what we eat and drink, how we exercise and rest, how and what we breathe, and what we think). However, we can’t directly control internal physiological responses. Areas of your brain that operate below consciousness – your subconscious – take care of those.
Many of your body’s physiological responses, including defense physiology, are controlled by a small portion of your brain, known as the hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus is among the first to know when you are frightened, angry, or otherwise emotionally upset. As soon as it is alerted, it sets off a series of internal events designed for protection. The hypothalamus might be termed the seat of emotions.
Emotions follow perceptions and thoughts. Different thoughts and emotions have different effects on your body. For example, the face pales in intense fear and flushes in anger. However, most of the effects of emotions can’t be seen. They involve internal organs. Organs either intensify or subdue their functions according to the emotion involved.
The hypothalamus controls these changes in intensity through the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – one of your several nervous systems.
Like all well-organized entities, your ANS assigns responsibility for carrying out operational details to “middle management” divisions. Two of the most important divisions are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
In general (and we do mean in general because there are exceptions), the sympathetic system speeds up organ functions, and the parasympathetic system slows them down.
This speeding up and slowing down is essential for balance. Your body works toward maintaining balance – and returning to normal. Speeding up and slowing down are both necessary to handle the various stimuli that bombard your body. However, unremitting speeding up or slowing down can affect your health in ways you probably won’t like.
The sympathetic system handles jobs such as increasing sweat production, muscle strength, heart rate and contraction strength, blood coagulation, adrenaline secretion, pupil size, and mental activity.
At the same time, the sympathetic system inhibits gastric secretion and decreases kidney output, bowel activity, and blood flow to the skin. Your body doesn’t need to be concerned with digesting food or eliminating waste while a hungry tiger is nipping at your heels. The sympathetic system prepares you for the fast action required to handle physical danger.
However, your body doesn’t need to run in action mode all the time. So, the parasympathetic system inhibits action mode functions and controls the internal involuntary activities necessary for non-threatening living.
The parasympathetic system slows the heart rate and decreases the force of cardiac contractions. It also constricts pupil size, allows food to be digested, processed, and eliminated, and controls body temperature and the secretion of some hormones.
Your conscious and subconscious minds work together as a team to handle information about the outside world. You need to be able to identify threats when they come along. And you need to be able to combat them, then return to relative peace and quiet.
You don’t need to respond constantly to threats that aren’t actual threats to your physical safety. Although, as far as your subconscious is concerned, there is no difference between a “real” crisis and an “imagined” crisis. A “real” crisis is detected through one or more of your five senses. The screech of the smoke alarm is a “real” crisis. “Imagined” crises originate in conscious thoughts and interpretations.
An “imagined” crisis may be highly upsetting, but it doesn’t threaten your physical safety. Business problems and family turmoil may be disturbing, but they usually aren’t life-threatening.
We need to be able to adjust to every condition of every moment. However, we don’t need to have our sympathetic or parasympathetic systems dominate our physiology all the time. Both of them respond to emotions or feelings. And, either sympathetic or parasympathetic can dominate if we constantly choose inappropriate thought patterns. So actually, a real crisis is a threat to survival; an imagined crisis is a threat to your health.