Last time, I explored how the autonomic nervous system operates when we’re in different emotional states. Its two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, work together to help maintain equilibrium and optimal engagement with the world around us.
- The sympathetic prepares us for action—think of fight-or-flight—but creates additional stress.
- The parasympathetic prepares us for inaction, and comparatively leaves us feeling better—but doesn’t leave us adequately prepared to fend off trauma.
- Infants spend most of their time in a parasympathetic state.
- Positive affect—compassion, bliss, tranquility—results from the coherent balance of the two states.
The enteric nervous system is sometimes considered the third part of the autonomic system. Residing in (and largely controlling) your digestive system, it also appears to process potential threat, both physical and psychological. Its output goes directly to areas in the brain responsible for incorporating visceral emotional feedback into action plans.
The enteric system communicates to your brain (and the rest of you) largely through fear, anxiety, and disgust. Though humans are designed to maintain low levels of these emotions in most circumstances, enteric emotions are programmed to increase rapidly at the first sign of trouble.
These are also precisely the emotions that most often contribute to traumatic reactions. They are more likely to become overwhelming when the internal balance has tended too far toward the parasympathetic end of the spectrum. At that point, we have little advanced preparedness to respond, so the ensuing stress (in reaction to the enteric assessment of threat) overwhelms us.
Breathing patterns and emotions affect one another.
Positive affect, as we’ve discussed, is a pretty fine-grained balance of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic naturally alter in their intensity with each breath. Inhaling speeds up your heart rate and increases sympathetic functioning, while exhaling slows it down and increases parasympathetic functioning.
Different emotions are associated with distinct patterns, not only of posture and facial expression, but also of breathing. Choppy breathing, by increasing autonomic incoherence, also increases feelings of panic. Slow, stable breathing with even cycles of inhaling and exhaling produces deep feelings of well-being, which people often experience as “spiritual.”
Focusing one’s mind on highly positive affective states (e.g., gratitude) can regulate one’s breathing and increase one’s overall sense of well-being. Alternately, people can focus on breathing in a stable rhythm (6 seconds in, 6 seconds out, without holding one’s breath) and achieve the same state, at least temporarily.
Posture, expression, breathing, thought, feeling, and behavior are all associated with one another. Changing any one (or better yet, two) of them will increase the likelihood of eliciting that emotional state.
Love balances the autonomic nervous system.
Love is an emotional state that demarcates the beginning of what I call the Spiritual Range. Other emotions appearing after love in that range include compassion, bliss, tranquility, and equanimity, which are even more coherent integrations of the two nervous systems. Most people rarely achieve these states, and certainly don’t live much of their lives in them.
We can easily describe the emotions, actions, and cognitive style associated with genuine love: peace, forgiveness, joy, appreciation, and generosity come quickly to mind as components. A loving life is lived with passion, purpose, and a deep connection to others and to mankind as a whole. Thought content is rich, and attributions toward others are generous.
Loving decisions are wise decisions. The more loving a person is, the the more realistic they are. Their hope for and trust in humanity is balanced and strengthened by their understanding and acceptance of humanity, with all of its individual and collective quirks and foibles.
Falling in love is quite different.
The defining characteristic of falling in love is the character of the lovers’ relationship. It’s open, usually to the point of foolhardiness. It lacks boundaries. Trust is blind, and no effort is made to determine if the romantic other corresponds to one’s projections. Thinking is dichotomous. The other is perfect unless jealousy takes over, at which time rage sets in.
If genuine love reflects an autonomic nervous system at peace, falling in love reflects an uneasy autonomic truce. The blind trust and lack of boundaries hint at its parasympathetic dominance. The dichotomous thinking and reluctance to test reality indicate its defensive nature.
Modern life is stressful. It wasn’t constructed with human design in mind. People work too hard, for too many hours, with too few breaks and too little control, over too few years. Falling in love is a respite. It’s a defensive “pretend” state that takes the edge off stress. By blindly trusting someone who’s barely known, it helps relieve sympathetic dominance, at least temporarily.
But it isn’t really love.
It’s easy to love your fantasy. Loving real people is harder. They’re messier. At least, my fantasies are never as messy as actual people always turn out to be.
Yet accessing your genuine love for others, warts and all, and letting them know about it—verbally, emotionally, and in your behavior—is the only thing that’ll redeem you and make your life worthwhile. It’ll make their life more pleasant. It’ll make your life whole.
Falling in love with them won’t do that.
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