Main »

Autonomic Nervous System Control

...rather than being controlled by your emotions, it is useful to understand their physiological underpinnings and control them. This pattern helps to form Reflective Behavior and Self-understanding. It also allows for the anti-patterns Unjustified Trust and Ignoring Your Emotions, and so should be used with caution.

Note this is material from the CFAR Class Againstness.

Humans have physiological systems that affect decision-making and emotions. Simple physical actions can influence the state of those systems.

The autonomic nervous system has two main components: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Broadly speaking, the SNS is responsible for rapidly mobilizing resources, as seen in the stress response, which involves increasing the heart rate, narrowing attention, and inhibiting non-essential bodily activities like digestion. Sudden SNS activation in the presence of an environmental threat produces the “fight-flight-or-freeze” response, and the SNS can also remain active for longer durations in cases of prolonged stress. PSNS activation (“rest and digest”) serves to counteract the SNS.

SNS-dominated experiences tend to feel intense, energized, or “charged.” The SNS governs the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, so things flavored with anger (irritation, annoyance, frustration, rage) or fear (nervousness, anxiety, petrification, terror) usually come with heightened SNS activity. The SNS also governs more positive things like exhilaration, excitement, and jubilation—for instance, many of the emotions that come with energetic physical movement.

PSNS-dominated experiences, on the other hand, are more relaxed or “chill.” There is often a soothing, relieving, or lazy quality to them. Imagine times when you were dead-tired an hour or so after a hard workout, or the sort of pleasant relaxedness of sunbathing or a hot tub, and you’re on the right track. Social situations where you feel quietly open and free to share vulnerability seem to have the PSNS-dominant quality as well.

For a human or embedded agent, the core challenge is that these systems also affect the decision-making process. The way you think about things, say things, and hear things other people say are all mediated by your read of the situation; it's easier to win fights if you're parsing it as a fight, and easier to relax in situations when you perceive that there isn't a threat. SNS activation is one of the easiest examples of Metacognitive Blind Spots to point to, as the states tend to be transient and easily noticed (after the fact).

The solution is not to never or always be SNS-activated, but to have a finer moment-to-moment sensitivity of how SNS and PSNS activated you are, and have tools for raising and lowering either amount separately. [As it happens, most often people need additional techniques to lower SNS activations.]

Remember that each person has their own baseline, and every body expresses autonomic nervous system shifts differently—you’ll want to calibrate by setting up TAPs to remind you to observe yourself under various levels of stress. It may help to watch others, too—noticing how their physiology changes in various situations.

To shift your position on the autonomic spectrum, one possible method is to mimic the look and feel of where you want to be. In practice, most people tend to find it easy to slip into an SNS-dominant state, and hard to shift away from that state once in it (easy to lose one’s temper, and hard to calm down). Since the SNS-dominant state also seems to be more problematic for holding on to rationality, most of the skill to be gained here is in shifting toward PSNS-dominance while under stress. There are many ways to do this, but a good starting point looks something like the following:


Develop an understanding and control over your autonomic nervous system.

Ever person is different, and will get different mileage from different techniques for noticing and affecting their SNS and PSNS activations. Some commonly useful affective techniques are Open Posture, Deep Breaths, and Remember Your Feet. Notice that techniques to affect can also be useful to perceive--opening your posture works if you started with Closed Posture, which is a sign of (among other things) SNS activation.