Have you ever noticed that things like singing, dancing, slow breathing, watching the sea, listening to rain can make you feel calmer? Or maybe you know that you like doing such things and have never really thought about why? There are very good reasons behind this, and here’s an explanation to help you understand. Once you get this, some of your reactions which may have puzzled you will make sense and you will be able to manage them better.
Any of your feelings of agitation, anxiety or lowness, as well as your feelings of peacefulness, warmth and relaxation, are under the control of your Autonomic Nervous System, (ANS) which automatically reacts to things both outside and inside your body, as well as your thoughts, without you being consciously aware of it or in control of it.
The ANS has 3 main branches, Sympathetic, Parasympathetic Dorsal Branch and Parasympathetic Ventral Branch. These 3 work together, in consultation with your thoughts, events happening around you, and how well you are in your general health. The Dorsal Branch and the Sympathetic part of the system are designed to respond to threat, anything they perceive as unsafe, and they produce the fight/flight/freeze reactions you may be familiar with. The Ventral Branch is designed to keep everything working optimally for your health and well being, and, most important of all, to enable you to relate meaningfully to others. In a relaxed situation they are all in balance, ticking along nicely together, and your ability to relate to others is open, comfortable and comforting. You feel OK.
When you are stressed, scared, upset, the Dorsal and Sympathetic elements become more activated and you might feel tingly, tense, nauseous, or sluggish and exhausted. The Dorsal Branch tends to make you withdraw and shut down, the Sympathetic Branch agitates you and motivates you into action, and in both states you are not able to relate to others in a meaningful way. Your ANS is using all it’s efforts to let you know something is wrong, so you can take whatever steps are needed to get to a safe place again. Not all of the ways it alerts you to a threat are actually healthy or helpful. You can behave in out of control or anti-social ways, withdraw and become isolated and depressed, have a cigarette or a few drinks more than usual, feel “out of sorts”.
Listening to music, or sounds of rain or flowing water such as the waves on the seashore, taking a walk in natural surroundings, exercising or dancing, all take the energy away from the Dorsal and Sympathetic reactions and activate the Ventral Branch. This calms and soothes the Sympathetic and Dorsal Branches, and brings you back into balance so the 3 branches of your ANS can return to working together harmoniously. Your brain will be able to think sensibly about what triggered your upset feelings and sort things out calmly. The Ventral Branch will work to help you back into relating well and naturally to others around you, and that is the best recipe for health and well being.