How the field of neuroscience can help us understand and enhance our mental health and wellbeing
This is part one of a two part series about how we can use findings from neuroscience to help us manage stress and other challenges in our daily and professional lives.
What is neuroscience?
In the last few decades ‘neuroscience’ has become a buzz word in the field of psychology. Why? Because it gives scientific validity to what we know about being human and how our brains and bodies work.
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system – the bodily system, including the brain, that controls all our reactions, responses, and behaviours. Neuroscience examines how the nervous system is structured and works, how it develops, what can go wrong and how it can change.
The last few decades have seen the advent of increasingly sophisticated brain scanning imagery technology which shows how our brains and bodies respond to the influence of different events and circumstances. This provides hard evidence of some key theories about psychological development such as infant research studies, which show how our brains develop in response to our environment from birth. 
Neuroscience is a vast topic informed by a wide, and ever increasing, range of fields. In this article we focus on the workings of one part of the nervous system that is pertinent and of most use in managing our emotions and stress. In our second article we explore how to develop greater awareness of our responses and behaviours and how we can adapt our behaviours to influence our nervous system responses.
An introduction to the structure of the nervous system
The human nervous system is divided into 2 major parts:
The central nervous system - comprises the brain and the spinal cord – the spinal cord being the conduit by which information from the body is passed to the brain and information and commands are passed from the brain to the body.
The peripheral nervous system – is composed of the network of nerves within the body.
It can be divided into 2 parts that function in contrasting ways:
- The somatic nervous system – concerns elements that can be commanded at will, such as raising a hand to wave. This system is concerned with voluntary actions.
- The autonomic nervous system - controls those physical body responses that happen automatically and involuntarily without us having to think about it, such as breathing and body temperature.
In this article we focus on the autonomic nervous system as its functions have the most impact on the connection between the brain and body and on our overall sense of wellbeing and effective functioning.
The autonomic nervous system
In a well regulated body the autonomic nervous system's 2 branches, the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch, work well together in a balanced way.
They can be likened to the accelerator and brake of a car – they work in opposition to each other but both elements are fundamental for safe and effective operation.
The sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator – activating and energising the body’s systems. It is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response and as such controls the body's initial response to a perceived threat. The reactions that occur, such as the increase in heart rate and the release of adrenaline, prepare the body to take action to protect itself. Usually once the perceived threat is over this fight or flight response switches off.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the brake – activation and energising of the body’s systems are reduced and slowed allowing this state’s key 'rest and digest’ function to take over. When the parasympathetic branch is engaged, the body can relax, be still and important body processes involved in digestion can function. However, this branch also has a protective function in the face of threat; the shutdown response which we experience as a freeze or disconnection in the face of difficulties, often learnt when we were much younger.
The video below shows the key physiological functions that are switched on when each state is activated.
We can be derailed by these physical reactions but unless we have been taught to recognise and think about these reactions, they remain outside of our awareness even though they can have a substantial impact on our overall health.
Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
Short video on YouTube from the Inside Us channel.
Throughout the day we constantly move in and out of these different nervous system states.
For instance, we might find our sympathetic nervous system is activated if we feel threatened in an argument and this activation helps us make our own points; we then find our parasympathetic response is engaged as we calm down when an acceptable compromise has been reached. This would be an example of a well-balanced autonomic nervous system reaction.
But why don’t we always manage to function in this type of healthy way?
One reason is evolution and how we humans have developed over time. From an evolutionary perspective, our autonomic nervous system responses developed very early on to help us stay alive in the face of threat and danger posed by predators. These responses are automatic, rapidly mobilising our system to ensure we could either run away, stand our ground, and fight or feign death until the predator had left. This system has not changed, we still respond in the same way if we perceive a threat - albeit the threats in today’s world are quite different.
It is clear then why we need to learn to become more aware of our autonomic nervous system functioning and to think about the ease with which we move in and out of each state – are we functioning well like driving a car from A to B, using the accelerator and brake appropriately to ensure a smooth journey?
Sometimes the balance we need for healthy functioning is lost:
- We might find that our responses are extreme – in a highly activated sympathetic nervous system state we cannot control our anger and we lash out aggressively in an argument or that we too easily slip into a low energy parasympathetic state and find ourselves backing down and submitting meekly.
- Alternatively, we might find we get stuck in either one of these states - if we experience strong anxiety or panic, we might find ourselves stuck in a state of heightened stress from a fight or flight response. or if we find ourselves in a period of depression, we have probably moved into a shutdown response and can’t get out of it.
Being stuck for a period of time in either of these autonomic nervous system states will have a negative impact on our emotional and physical health.
Although we cannot immediately change or stop these autonomic processes, to help ourselves achieve a better balance we need to:
- develop awareness that the responses are occurring;
- learn to use a strategy that works to either calm down or stimulate our nervous system state;
- understand (by identifying triggers) why we are being activated in the way we are; and
- consider whether the responses are appropriate in the circumstances and if they are not, what we can do to manage the behaviour driven by our physical reactions.
In part two of this neuroscience series, we will:
- offer some strategies for regulating our nervous system and
- identify how, as a busy professional in a demanding work environment, we can harness our nervous system states in ways that are beneficial in that role.
 Scans show how neural pathways in the brain light up in response to a specific stimulus. Neural pathways that light up regularly then become part of the hard wiring of how we function and how we habitually respond in the same way to the events and circumstances of our lives. Scans also shows that a changed response lights up new neural pathways and that it is possible for these new pathways to become engrained over time, a concept known as neuroplasticity. This is a key finding as it makes clear our ability to influence our systems by changing our behaviour.