Meditation and the Autonomic Nervous System

Category: Health and Meditation | Meditation and the Brain

Meditation helps your nervous system

About Your Nervous System: Calming Your Nerves & Heart with Meditation

You might have heard meditation can heal your central nervous system, but what does that mean and how does it work? Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect. But it’s balance, not calm, that’s the true signifier of nervous system health. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is just one part of your central nervous system. It regulates bodily functions that typically happen unconsciously, such as breathing, your heart beat, blood pressure and digestion. Two of its main branches are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System: This SNS is primarily activated by stress. Often referred to as our “fight of flight system,” the SNS elevates our attention and prepares us for activity. Blood pressure and heart rate rises, digestion ceases, and energy is sent to our muscles, readying them for contraction. The SNS extends to every area of the body.
  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System: If the SNS is our body’s accelerator, the PNS can be seen as the brake. Known as the “rest and digest” system, the PNS lowers heart rate and blood pressure and kick-starts digestion. The nerves of the much smaller PNS extend only to the head, primary internal organs and external genitalia.

The SNS and PNS are equally important to healthy nervous system functioning. They work together to maintain homeostasis. Problems arise when these systems act out of balance.

When the ANS is functioning as it should, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action as needed, then after a burst of activity, gets quiet again. Failure to fully recover from a moment of acute stress or constant exposure to stress creates an imbalance between these two important systems. Our body never fully engages in a stress response, nor does it get the chance to rest. Instead, we remain agitated, restless or anxious thanks to SNS activation.

Meditation for Healing the Nervous System

While the ANS is largely responsible for the actions we do without thinking, it’s also influenced by conscious intent. Because the mind-body connection is a two-way street, meditation can help the ANS return to a homeostatic state. Meditation brings awareness to our experience, teaches us to let go of thoughts, emotions or situations that are stressing us out, and physically relaxes both body and mind. The following are just a few ways in which meditation brings our autonomic nervous system back into balance:

  • Increased Awareness. Meditation helps bring awareness to our state of mind or sensation in the body. With this information we can mindfully respond to what the body needs. When the SNS is activated, we might need to take a walk, go for a run, or return to calm with a few deep breaths. Sometimes, just recognizing our moment of stress does wonders to help us let it go.
  • Emotional Regulation. A regular meditation practice teaches us that we are not our thoughts and emotions, nor are all of them worthy of our engagement. Creating greater distance between stimulus and reaction gives us time to choose how to respond. Within this space, we can prevent SNS activation by lovingly disengaging from the source of our stress.
  • Improved Relaxation. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and downregulates the sympathetic nervous system in part by just helping us relax. Meditation lowers heart rate and blood pressure, teaches us to breathe more deeply, and helps us get better sleep. The greater calm we feel when we meditate is also connected to improved mindfulness and emotional regulation.
  • Greater Wisdom. Meditation keeps us rooted in present moment reality, versus swept up in assumptions and stories. Often, it’s these stories, and not reality, that are the source of our stress. Observing how the mind tends toward exaggeration or solidification opens us to the possibility that not all our assumptions are true. Remembering this can change our behavior.

When operating within present-moment reality, we learn to react to each situation that arises in the most appropriate manner. If we must run, we run. Otherwise, we feel free to rest. Meditating to strengthen the nervous system isn’t just about shutting down the sympathetic nervous system, but allows both systems to work in harmony for a healthy, functioning balance. Check out our meditation course on having a healthy mind body by watching the video below.

Bring your mind and body into balance with meditation

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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