The Third Nervous System


Babies cry.  Then they angry cry.  Then they stop.

Adults in stressful situations bargain or negotiate. Then they get frustrated and angry. Then they shut down.

When I was at the Freedom for Family Wellness Summit in Washington, DC last November I saw something that changed my life.  Honestly, it actually saved my life.  As a chiropractor I’ve always taught my patients there are two parts to your autonomic, or “automatic” nerve system.   The one most people recognize is nicknamed the “Fight or Flight” system, and that system puts blood flow into your muscles and away from your organs.  It is technically called the sympathetic nervous system and the roots exit the spine from the base of your neck to a spot about 1/3 of the way down your low back.  If you were to pick which system was dominant in those examples of the baby and the adult, it’s the second way of dealing with things.

The older part from an evolutionary perspective exits outside, or “para” to the sympathetics (hence the name, parasympathetic nervous system). Technically their roots exit at the very top and bottom parts of the spinal column.  The parasympathetics struggle for as catchy of a nickname, because “Rest and Digest,” or “Feed and Breed” both undersell how important this system is to your physiology.

The Swearing and Aggressive Bonobo ( Pan paniscus),

The parasympathetic system regulates our most basic functions, including moving everything that enters and leaves the body.  Back when planet Earth was filled with single-celled organisms sitting around in a soup of food, the only things a microbe needed to worry about was attracting food in and pushing waste out.  Our evolutionary extensions of that- exhalation, sweating, menses, and going to the toilet (#1 and #2) are all functions dominated by this system.  Opening blood vessels, flushing of the skin, and digestion happen because of this system.  So do birth, growth, and healing.

Once we grew limbs and needed to run after our food (or recognized that we were the food something was running after!), the sympathetic nerve system developed to take the reserves of blood flow and metabolism away from our survival organs and put them into our muscles to move.  This newer system started impacting other systems.  The immune system recognizes whether or not a threat is a regular feature in your environment and makes long-term memory cells to fight it when the parasympathetic system is dominant, or understands this is a one-off injury that needs to be surrounded and dissolved by short term fighters guided by hormones released in the sympathetic system.  As I mentioned, birth is largely a parasympathetic process, as is sex, because while the parasympathetics help regulate contractions, the body needs a sympathetic rush to get mothers that last blast of energy for pushing.

Stress puts people into the sympathetic, Fight or Flight, state.  We weren’t meant to live there, though; you would either escape the tiger or vanquish it, and the moment would be over.  Except now we live with mental tigers- jobs we hate, relationships that are breaking down, a constant media barrage of terrorism and impending doom from disease.  I’ve tried to get my patients to understand the importance of keeping out of the sympathetic state because I thought I was doing them a favor by emphasizing the “opposite,” the parasympathetic system.  But it turned out I was wrong.

I heard evidence at the Summit that doctors in cardiac rehabilitation learned a secret to keeping their patients from being repeat customers after surgery.  The theory was that their high-stress lifestyles caused the sympathetic system to antagonize the heart into beating with a faster, harder pressure until that nerve signal eventually wore out.  Instead of relaxing the body though, the underlying tone of the parasympathetic system also eventually wore out, and the tone responsible for keeping the vital organs functioning began to fade.  This meant the patient faced organ failure.  So here I was, thinking if the parasympathetics were dominant, everything would be nice and easy in the body.  If it wasn’t black, then it was white.  I never considered the consequence of only firing on this set of cylinders, and that as they started getting burned up from over-use that the body would approach shut-down and death.  The single-celled organisms actually used this as a survival mechanism.  If they were threatened, they would feign death.  If you were to use the baby and adult example at the beginning of this story, what you see in the third scenario, not the first, is the human parasympathetic adaptation to extreme stress.  We cry, then scream for attention, and if no one listens then we see if playing dead will get us what we want. Sometimes the playing goes a little too far, and we damage ourselves in the process.  The secret those cardiac rehab folks figured out, by the way, was to get the patient to renew friendships.  That’s the key to the third nerve system.

What some neuroscientists are calling the “social nervous system” is the credited to Stephen Porges, Ph.D. who developed this concept in the polyvagal theory.  John Chitty’s summary of Porges’ work is featured in the Winter 2014 edition of Pathways to Family Wellness Magazine and is certainly worth a read.   They describe the social nerve system as being the part of our higher brain that uses voice, facial expressions, and eye contact to stimulate responses in another person.  As baby humans and other members of the animal kingdom were pretty much worthless at using either existing system to protect their small, fragile bodies, Porges suggested that the brain adapted and developed ways to make other adults in the species care for and protect them.

Essentially we use these three nerve systems- social, sympathetic, and parasympathetic, in order to cope with stressful situations.  Imagine a newborn crying. If the social strategy doesn’t work and he can’t bargain with the parents to meet his needs, the baby goes to fight-flight “angry crying.”  If that is allowed to keep going and nothing changes, the baby then drops into the parasympathetic strategy and plays dead.  In an intriguing twist, the success of these strategies get cemented into our subconscious as infants and become the predominant way we deal with stress as adults.

I’d been attempting to juggle the responsibilities of my office, prepare for several major speaking engagements around the country, deal with having to move out of our rental house into a new place, and watch my wife struggle with depression as month after month we failed to conceive, and then because of my emotional distance tell me she wanted a break from our marriage.  That was what I’ll look back on as my “November from hell.”  I’d run out of adrenaline by the time the Summit arrived and could feel myself in the midst of what should have been my biggest professional triumph in both physical and emotional shut-down.  Hours before listening to the stories of the heart patients, I’d cried with a complete stranger during Barry Taylor‘s communication workshop as both of us admitted we had no idea if our marriages were going to survive the weekend.  I had passed sympathetic shut-down, and was well into the parasympathetic spiral.

Then I heard some speakers reference this third system, and my world began to make sense.  Dr. John Minardi alluded to it in a video, Dr. Michael Hall described it with these heart patients, and then both Gregg Braden and Dr. Joe Dispenza brought it home for me with their research on meditation and HeartMath.  The way the nerve system, and in a larger sense the entire mind-body, prefers to function is in communication and harmony with the community around it.  I was in that place very familiar to many people of holding onto a lifeline in a storm, looking for people to empathize and share with, because innately my body knew it was important for survival.  More importantly, the reason I’d gotten myself into this mess in the first place was that I’d held onto the outdated idea that it was unprofessional for a doctor to be friends with patients, and that in marriage it wasn’t okay to be friends with people of the opposite sex.  By moving my family to a new town three years ago and socially isolating myself, I’d set my neurology up for a fight it could not win.  My body was internally screaming for attention from my consciousness, and when that didn’t get my attention it started to play dead.

You can see people in these three states everywhere around you.  When you start to understand why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, it’s as if a veil has been lifted.  Dispenza focuses his work on the electricity that the brain and body give off during meditation.  In basic terms a baby has a brain wave pattern that scientists have designated as the subconscious mind.  All of the keys to survival are written in this program by a specialized set of nerve cells.  Neuroscientists have identified these brain cells, called mirror neurons, and suggest the reason we have them is to write a program for what to do later in life when we encounter a threatening situation.

In early childhood the brainwaves shift into a conscious, creative pattern. This level of activity is responsible for everything from pretending a broomstick in the kitchen is a horse galloping through the forrest to turning a passing shadow into a monster hiding in the closet.  In adulthood we revisit this creative wave pattern in the early stages of sleep, right around the time we wake up, and during deep meditation.  It’s close enough to the subconscious level that we have the power to re-program our neurological patterns by visiting this state.

The final brainwave pattern is the signal of rational thought.  This mature pattern begins around 7-10 years old and persists into adulthood.  It is this pattern that can discern the difference between the broomstick and an imaginary horse.  However, it’s the pattern that was also responsible for me rationalizing my procrastination on dealing with my emotions.  This wave pattern had allowed me to “think” myself sick.

So now we have these two concepts:  The three nerve systems, and the levels of thought patterns that program our responses to stress.  I mentioned the video Minardi shared with the group, and how you can tell how adults wrote their programs as little children based on the strategies that worked the best for them.  Watch how people socially bargain (“Hey man, I don’t want any of that…”), prepare to run or fight back, or faint in response to this elevator prank.

What you’re seeing is quite possibly the biggest revelation in neuroscience since the concept of neuropsychoimmunology gained widespread recognition in the 1990’s- the understanding that the nerve, endocrine and immune systems are all tied together with mental processes.  The development and health of the social autonomic nervous system is most evolved defense human beings have for dealing with stress.  I’ve told my patients for years that the effects of stress are cumulative, so the antidote to it must be, too.  I would mistakenly guide them towards activities to build their relaxation response because I had presumed I needed to counteract the fight-flight response.  There was a third option I was missing, though.

It’s really quite simple.  If you don’t have social outlets for stress, such as a community of friends or family that you can regularly and honestly communicate with and get your needs from, then that’s what triggers the body to cope through a fight-flight physiology.  This isn’t a sustainable state, and if you do not transition back out of it then your body and mind begin to shut down.  The manner and degree to which we choose to interact with other people, then, dictates a very important part of our health.  It takes more than merely spending 15 minutes in the morning doing affirmations or 30 minutes with a yoga DVD at your house.  Understanding the purpose of the third nerve system brings you to a realization that there is an important reason for spending a Sunday morning creating spiritual community, or for actually attending a yoga class in person, that has little to do with the activity itself.  The reason is in the people around you.  It’s allowing your pattern of brainwaves to entrain into a calmer, larger field that offers you all protection.  Once you leave from that space, you have the ability to carry that calmer pattern deep into your nerve system.  The more you practice, the more your neurons cement in this pattern because as they say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  Can you imagine the implications that a group of people in a peaceful, blissful firing pattern have on the other people they meet in the community?  The ability to interact with one another’s social neurology can be a powerful agent for change.

We’ll continue discussing how the social nerve system develops in children, and why “Cry it out” maybe one of the most mis-guided parenting philosophies in our generation.

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