The Nervous System and Relaxation Response

Hi everyone! This is Matthew Breuer here. I’m an associate Marriage and Family Therapist in downtown San Francisco currently accepting clients, so please feel free to contact me if you are looking for a therapist.

Today I thought we could talk about the nervous system and bipolar and how they can relate. I have a hypothesis that I will share with you in a moment here, so stay tuned.

So drum roll…

My hypothesis is that practicing the relaxation response builds the soothing system and balances the nervous system. So the reason that we want to do this is that oftentimes in states of extreme stress, psychological arousal, etc., our nervous system can become overstimulated and our capacity, our resiliency, can kind of shrink.

Most people in Western society, through the allostatic load, the constant stimulus and stressors of everyday life, their nervous system is kind of fried and that part of the nervous system on our chart here you can see we have our central nervous system which includes the brain and the spinal cord and that all goes down into different parts of the brain. We also have our peripheral nervous system over on this side here and we’re looking at the autonomic nervous system and in particular the components of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. So the sympathetic nervous system is our fight-or-flight arousal activated nervous system and our parasympathetic is more of the relaxation response and it can also be summarized as rest and digest.

I have another chart kind of talking about that and again I will link to this in the comments maybe starting with the sympathetic nervous system you can see that it you know correlates to different nerve centers throughout the body and when that gets activated different things happen when we’re stressed out our pupils dilate get bigger our mouth gets dry that’s why when you’re trying to give a speech and you’re all oh we’re stimulated you get a dry mouth your heartbeat increases just like with the anxiety or panic attack your Airways oddly enough can relax they can get more oxygen in case you need to run your stomach stops digesting it’s not as essential right now different things happen with your gall bladder your of course your intestines along with your stomach are inhibited and then epinephrine and norepinephrine or adrenaline and noradrenaline are stimulated as one of the kind of fight-or-flight hormones along with cortisol probably and your bladder can relax a little bit so that might be why when somebody is super overstimulated they might wet themselves I suppose that could make sense and then kind of going right down to the the sexual response and lower part of our body and spinal column and all of that the sympathetic nervous system promotes ejaculation and vaginal contraction which are kind of a little bit more of an active you know process there

Now in contrast we often don’t spend as much time in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is where our pupils can get smaller and that’s why if you’re paying attention to somebody’s eyes you can kind of see if they’re more stressed out or more relaxed their mouths saliva gets stimulated you can see how that’s preparing for digestion when you’re in more of a relaxed state of being your heartbeat slows your Airways are a little more constricted and your stomach is getting ready to digest as well as your intestines and the bladder can contract and this parasympathetic nervous system is also activated when it promotes an erection of the genitals that’s why sometimes in performance anxiety and if you’re a little too stressed out you’re not able to get an erection so if you’re having trouble maintaining an erection I do contend to practice some breathing techniques which kind of activates the relaxation response can help promote an erection.

So tying this back into bipolar, I contend that our sympathetic nervous system during mania gets overstimulated and then our body, as a protective mechanism to restore homeostasis, kind of shuts that down, and then we can go into depression. I think that depression is not so much an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system of resting and digesting but just like an overall shutdown of the body to kind of conserve energy and so if we can build our capacity to be relaxed we can help balance out this fight-or-flight response and the more were able to go back and forth can append relate between these it’s the same thing that we try to do with trauma work and build our capacity like a rubber band in order to deal with stress but I come back and relax and so much of our modern-day problems come about because we’re constantly in the stress state of being and we don’t get the chance to kind of rest so please do take a breath and rest now to give you a little bit more of a bio lesson and Anatomy we can kind of see here you know all the very specialized nerves that go throughout the body

I just want to point out this interesting idea for you to consider, that there might be something to the chakra system, with the different nerve plexus at these different areas kind of numbered all along the spine and that a healthy flow of Chi or prana, of nervous electrical energy can help balance out the body. Just something to consider, if you’re into holistic alternative approaches to energy.

Now along with this, maybe just to give a little bit of an idea about the relaxation response, that is often what happens in mindful breathing, in meditation and just kind of calming down the body, paying attention to the heartbeat or the breath. Doing that as a regular exercise, as a habit, can strengthen that part of your nervous system.

Paul Gilbert proposes this evolutionary model of human beings, that we switch between different systems to manage our emotion and he points out three. They’re each associated with different brain regions as well as different brain chemistry, and his contention is that distress is caused by an imbalance between these systems. This can often be associated with the under development of the soothing system. We can be in the threat system, that we’re detecting threats and protecting ourselves. “Better safe than sorry” is kind of our evolutionary survival model. This brain region is correlated with the amygdala, and so we can detect threats and again we see that adrenaline and the cortisol that matches up with the sympathetic nervous system. Our feelings in the state of being can often be anxiety anger and disgust.

Maybe just to talk about anger being a protective mechanism like when we push back, when our boundaries are being violated. Then disgust as an evolutionary thing to protect us from spoiled food or something that could potentially infect us. So again that’s a threat detection system.

On the other hand, in our drive system, is when we’re wanting or pursuing something for resources. This is correlated with the nucleus accumbens and dopamine, so we get pleasure when we pursue something and we achieve it, whether it’s food or you know whatever. That’s often where a addiction type stuff can come in, our reward centers get get activated.

Now the often underutilized soothing system is to help us manage distress and promote bonding and connection with other people. In my experience as a therapist, emotion regulation is often exceedingly difficult for people, especially if you have borderline personality disorder or if you’re in a symptomatic state of bipolar. It can be harder to connect with people.

Substance use can also often be used as a substitute way of connecting or as a way to facilitate a little bit more of a superficial connection. This is correlated with the prefrontal cortex, as part of our brain executive function. It’s the higher evolved state of being in the brain. You can kind of see the drug thing here connected with natural opiates of the body, and oxytocin as the bonding hormone, which is released during a meaningful, long-lasting hug, or released when a mother gives birth to a child, and that promotes that bonding. The correlated feelings are connected, safe, protected, cared for and trust. Which are all something I think we all long for a lot more of, feeling safe and connected. So if people with bipolar in particular, and everyone in general, can help build their soothing system through the relaxation response and tap into their parasympathetic nervous system, I contend that overall health can be improved, our enjoyment of life is increased, and we will much better be able to surf and navigate the waves of the ups and downs of bipolar. So please do take a breath, rest, relax, enjoy your food, pay attention to your heartbeat, and make the most of life. Take care.

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