How to Control Your Autonomic Nervous System

Siim Land

Are we what happens to us, or what we choose to be? If you lack self-governance, then you probably are more reactive than proactive. By knowing how to control your autonomic nervous system, you can choose what the answer to that question will be.The purpose of doing so is to achieve full control over our own physiology. With enough knowledge and skill, we will be able to rise above our biology to a certain degree. You will be able to choose what state your body is in and deliberately influence your autonomic nervous system.

Autonomic Nervous System Divisions

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is divided into 2 branches:

  • The sympathetic nervous system is also called as the “flight of fight” response that speeds up our engines and pushes the gas pedal to the metal. It’s the adrenaline releasing state that allows us to go faster, ramps up our heart and pumps more fuel to the muscles. At the same time, it increases cortisol and is catabolic by nature, which causes tissue damage for the production of energy.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system is the brakes of our engine and known as the rest and digest response. It’s the anabolic state in which we are conducting repair mechanisms and allowing our body to recover.
The Autonomic Nervous System Divisions
The Autonomic Nervous System Divisions

By mastering our own physiology, we will be able to voluntarily shift in between the two whenever we like and can thus make a decision what state our body is in. Whether it is anabolic or catabolic.

Being both catabolic and anabolic are necessary for healthy cell functioning and maintenance. They’re complementary, meaning that breaking down tissue stimulates repair and augmentation. That’s how you build muscle and get stronger.

However, you only need only just a little bit of stimulus to cause the body to adapt. Being sympathetic driven for too long will lead to actually getting weaker because of not being able to properly recover. What’s worse, our environment is full of countless stressors that all make us ride adrenaline for too long.

Is it Possible to Control Your Autonomic Nervous System?

Ever since the discovery of the ANS, it was thought that it lay out of our conscious control, hence the name. We don’t pay attention to our heart beat, digestion or blood flow – they just happen automatically. 

However, the reason why we think we can’t control it is that they’re supposed to occur on the unconscious level. If we were to exert our psychic energy on regulating your core temperature, then you won’t have time to do anything else, like build the civilization. The ANS is automatic just because it’s more efficient to put it on autopilot and let the subconscious mind deal with it.

However, there are some people who have single-handedly refuted this doctrine that the ANS can’t be voluntarily controlled.

His name is Wim Hof, a Dutchman called the “Iceman”. He holds 20 Guiness World Records involving superhuman feats such as being immersed in ice for 2 hours, climb Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro in nothing but his shorts, run a marathon above the Arctic circle in Finland and one in the Namib desert dressed in the same manner.

Scientific research done on Wim Hof has shown that he can voluntarily regulate his own core temperature even in freezing climate(1), cure himself from symptoms of flu (2) and increase his metabolic rate by demand.

How to Control Your Autonomic Nervous System

The key to controlling our own physiology lies in our consciousness. By being aware of what goes on in our body we will be able to take dictate the influence these currents of energy will have on us.

The reason why it was thought that we are unable to control our autonomic nervous system in the first place is that, without enough attention, our subconscious mind will take care of everything for us.

If we were to always be mindful about all of our metabolic processes and organic mechanisms, then we would not have time to do other things that are necessary for our survival.

The autonomic nervous system is not automatic by nature but only allocated to become one because of our habitual way of behaving. Luckily, this is something we can actually be in control of.

If an organism is completely aware of the state of their body, then they can start to influence the way it is expressed. It is through achieving higher levels of consciousness where we can change our thinking patterns and the same applies to our autonomic nervous system.

We simply have to become more aware and thus we begin to feel more what goes on inside us. It is not esoteric, simply kept hidden from the analytical mind and allocated to our intuition. By combining these two modes of being we will be able to experience both and then master our physiology.

Become More Conscious of Your Inner Currents of Energy

The fundamental place to start with is to become more mindful. By bringing our fullest attention inside of ourselves we will become aware of what goes on within. This is important because if we want to master our physiology we need to first get in touch with it. Fine-tuning our psychology and physiology, our consciousness and our body, will enable us to reign supreme over our subconscious mind and take mindful control over our biology.

There are some easy and quick strategies we can use to immediately become more present and mindful about the state of our body. It’s BREATHING.

Bringing our conscious attention to the ins and outs of our breath will force us to become aware of what goes on within. Taking control of our respiratory processes will give us confidence in doing so with anything else that concerns us as well. Food and water is something we can survive for days without but a lack of oxygen will kill us in minutes.

Breathing is fundamental not only for becoming more conscious. It is also the gateway between the unconscious. Our breathing patterns can dictate the messages we send to our subconscious mind and thus create its own reality. It regulates the interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

Control Your State Control Your Life

If you are gasping for air and cannot take control of it, then you are creating a stress response within the body and stimulating the fight or flight hormone. If, however, you are breathing calmly, like in a meditative state, then you will enter the mode of rest and digest which makes you more tranquil and at ease.

The purpose is to learn how to take control of our respiration so that we could control on which side of the spectrum we reside most. We do not want excess cortisol to begin wreaking havoc to the body, so it is an incredibly vital skill to have to be able to voluntarily regulate your own autonomic nervous system. In so doing we will be able to remain calm even in the eye of the storm and also deliberately remain in an anabolic state.

As a result, our overall life will improve as well not just our performance. While training hard we will be able to maintain our strength by not gassing out, because of not knowing how to breath properly. In everyday life, we will become more mindful about ourselves and the world around us, making us experience less stress and other types of catabolic activities.

The key components of an exercise which would enable us to take control of our autonomic nervous system have to make us more conscious, in touch with our body, calm and make us feel like we are in complete control. The last part is necessary because it gives us confidence to maintain our state of tranquility.

Box Breathing

In my opinion, all of that can be accomplished by a popular Navy SEAL technique called box breathing. It is taught to combatants so that they could stay calm during life threatening firefights. In situations of life and death there is no room for error nor failure. You can’t choke or otherwise you will die. Therefore, it is definitely the most effective way of achieving the purpose of controlling one’s own autonomic nervous system. Moreover, it is incredibly easy and simple.

Think of a box with 4 facets. They are stages of your breathing with each phase lasting for 4 seconds.

  • Breath in for 4
  • Hold it for 4
  • Exhale for 4
  • Pause for 4
  • Repeat
  • Do it for 4 minutes in total.
Control Your Autonomic Nervous System Through Breathing
Control Your Autonomic Nervous System Through Breathing

By the end of it, you will have reached a semi-meditative state which makes you completely centered within your body and calm. It feels amazing and you are entirely in the rest and digest mode.

Become More Mindful Overall

But are you going to do 5 minutes of box breathing during military firefights or, in our case, HIIT, traffic jams and arguments? No, the purpose of it is to simply practice the skill of taking control of your breathing.

During the actual event of when you would be lifting heavy weights you simply use the same technique to calm down your nervous system. In between sets you will be gasping for air and can use mindful breathing to bring yourself down from being too stressed out. Training stimulates the fight of flight hormone which we then will be able to dissipate immediately for increased performance and faster recovery.

This skill needs to be deliberately practiced habitually. It’s necessary to develop the habit of always taking a step back during situations of great stress. By staying mindful and in control, you can grab the reins of your autonomic nervous system and thus can influence on which side of the coin you lie. 

Autonomic Nervous System Meditation

After knowing how to control your sympathetic response, you can voluntarily switch off your “fight or flight” hormone, which can sometimes remain elevated even after the situation has passed. You get out of the traffic jam in tact and win the argument with your spouse, but you’ll still be driven by adrenaline. Think of it like a bull inside a china shop – everything will eventually be broken down into bits and pieces. So it is with our adrenal glands. If we release too much cortisol too often then we’ll reach adrenal fatigue and damage our DNA.

How to develop the habit of being conscious about the state of your nervous system?

It starts with higher levels of consciousness and mindfulness again. If you teach yourself to pay attention to these things, then you’ll be able to recognize yourself even in the eye of the storm and remain in control amidst chaos.

Practicing meditation is a way to take control of your thoughts and emotions. It makes you more aware about the turmoil that goes on inside your head and realize that it’s not necessarily a part of who you really are. 

Want to start practicing meditation and to learn more about controlling your autonomic nervous system, physiology and psychology? If yes, then get the FREE Body Mind Agoge e-book, in which I give you all of the principles as well as a guided meditation track in which I tell you exactly what to do.

Body Mind Agoge Cover
Body Mind Agoge Cover