Creative Arts with Patrick Moore

“Lending” and “Borrowing” ANS Self-Regulation
September 25, 2014, 6:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

NeuroBiological “Borrowing” and “Lending”

Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two systems–one is like taking a sedative, the other is like taking a stimulant. The stimulant system is called the “Fight or Flight” system. Its formal name is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Think, adrenaline… escalating threat of danger… speeding up.

The sedative system is called either the “Rest and Digest,” or the “Feed and Breed” response. Its formal name is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Think of how you feel after a big dinner in your safe home when it is time to get into your jammies. Think, de-escalation… slowing down… relax.

A new, “Neurobiological” approach to mental health is to define a “resilient” person as one who can use both systems equally and appropriately. Many people lack resilience. Most of us habitually use one system to the exclusion of the other.. Some people are primarily aggressive or action-oriented, and others are primarily passive or avoidant. These ideas comes from Arlene Montgomery’s 2013 book, Neurobiology Essentials for Clinicians.  I habitually use my PNS and have difficulty using my SNS.

At the Brian Utting School of Massage (1993-94) Brian gave a brilliant lecture that I saw three times. He said the 50 most lethal diseases were all caused by, or made worse by the body too long in the SNS. Because the SNS diverts all energy to surviving the next two minutes, every erg of energy is needed for this last battle. The digestion is shut down (because why prepare calories for tomorrow when you may die in the next minute?). The immune system is shut down, and no energy is given toward maintenance of cells, hair, skin and nails. The SNS is designed to be “on” for short durations when needed, but in human culture the SNS strategy is to use it many hours a day, or day-and-night for weeks at a time. The person will lose hair, and their skin and nails will grow dull and cracked. All cells will age prematurely. Food will sit in the gut undigested which leads to ulcers, irritable bowels, and gut bacteria leaking into the body. The immune system does not protect against normal microbes and growths so infections and cancer increase. The heart can’t take high pressure for that long and the person gets heart problems. The eyes are sharp-focused too long and there are vision problems. Brian listed fifty in a one-hour whirlwind lecture (he must have been “on” SNS while he was lecturing!) In those days, 20 years ago, the SNS was the bad guy, and the PNS was the good guy. That made massage therapists good guys, Brian taught, because massage returns people from their SNS to their PNS.

Though less is written about the dangers and diseases caused by being too long in the PNS, after reading the new books I now imagine the PNS can also cause symptoms and worsen diseases. What would they be? Perhaps lack of exercise? Lack of sunlight? Overeating? Allergies? Inflammation? Fibromyalgia? What do you think?

The two imbalanced strategies worsen over time. A person who habitually reacts to life in only one way, will cause himself more stress when others react to his reaction. The new, greater stress, he deals with by reacting the same way, using his one-way habit. So it reinforces itself, it worsens.

“Anxiety,” Montgomery now defines as reacting to life stresses by habitually up-regulating with one’s SNS, but lacking the ability to talk oneself down or relax by using one’s PNS. “Depression,” she defines now as reacting to life by habitually tranquilizing oneself with one’s PNS, but lacking the ability to get oneself moving and acting with one’s SNS.

Anxiety and depression can make it very difficult–for some, impossible–to keep a job, a relationship, friends, even to keep oneself clean, fed and well.

Whether the effect is mild or severe, we ought to know–what is the cure? Yes, the person need to go against his habit and use his other, lesser-used nervous system. But how? While he is reacting, he is very unlikely to try a different approach. The fact is, getting out of this pickle is very difficult to do alone! Fortunately our bodies are programmed to get help from others:

“Borrowing” Self-Regulation from Trusted Others

When a young animal or child is anxious, ready to fight or flee, his resilient mother responds. Responding is different than reacting. The parent speaks or squawks in a more soothing, gentle tone of voice, softens her facial expressions and her posture, and reaches out to touch or groom the youth with soothing strokes. What we’re talking about is not the MENTAL content of what the parent says (though that helps), but about the parent’s PHYSICAL demonstration. The parent’s brain sends signals down her motor nerves to her muscles of vocalization, muscles of facial expression and posture, and muscles of reaching out to touch. These are seen, heard and felt by the one in need. These sights, sounds and tactile sensations are brought up the sensory nerves to the young one’s brain. Animal brains are designed to match the trusted other, and so, to down-regulate his fight-flight reaction. He becomes calm by her example. He “borrows” her self-regulation.

Mammals do this better than other animals. Vertebrates all have PNS and SNS systems, but mammals have an additional PNS goodie, the “myelenated vagal nerves.” This specially coated nerve transfers motor signals much faster than the normal, unmyelinated vagal nerve, to calm the mammal faster. The myelinated vagal concept, including the idea that mammals in particular can self-regulate based on the vision and sound of trusted others, is from a second book I am currently reading: The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) by Stephen Porges

The concept that humans “borrow” the nervous system responses of other humans, is from Arlene Montgomery’s book. The opening chapters of her book follow the case of “Cori,” who received healthy, resilient support from her mother and grandmother when she was a child, but after her mother and grandmother could no longer provide her with resilient examples, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Cori developed an aggressive habit and fell behind a grade in school.

In my opinion, those stuck in their SNS need to borrow down-regulation from calm others more often than those stuck in their PNS need to borrow up-regulation. Or, is this just my bias having gone to the Brian Utting school of massage? Or is it my bias because I am a person who has become habitually biased toward down-regulation? Do I devalue the importance of the SNS?

I recognize that some people are too passive. So people whose PNS is dominant and can’t get their SNS going, can also “borrow” responses from resilient others. When a child is too passive, a balanced parent can try to demonstrate a more urgent tone of voice, more urgent facial expressions and body postures, and can apply jostling or taps that have a stimulating effect on the child’s nervous system. Does this work as well, as demonstrating a calm presence to someone who is too anxious?

Montgomery’s point is that, in both cases, a person whose nervous system is biased toward one of the two systems, can “borrow,” “attune to,” and “resonate” with a person whose nervous system is more resilient and balanced.

If we did not receive this kind of ANS training from our childhood, we may need a therapist, mentor or other kind of help. Sometimes a teacher in school provides this for us–a year of watching a calm teacher might help an anxious youth, or a year of watching an active teacher might help a passive youth. Therapists are now being taught these concepts so that they can (my term now) “lend” their self-regulation to those they counsel.

The case history of “Cori” describes how a mental health therapist “lent” support for Cori. Chapter Two provides the fascinating actual conversation during their therapy session, with additional reporting of both people’s gestures and postures and tones of voice. After this, Montgomery analyzes the session again showing in each exchange how both Cori and the therapist were up-regulating and down-regulating. The therapist was not so perfect that she “responded” to everything Cori said and did. Often the therapist was “reacting.” Cori, a pre-teen, challenged and insulted the therapist, who reacted with defensive up-and down-regulation. But over the session hour, the therapist found her balance again, responded to her own reactions, regulated herself resiliently, and then Cori also felt more balanced.

First Resonate with the Imbalanced One, then Bring them Back to Balance

The most fascinating thing I’ve learned from Arlene Montgomery’s book so far (I am about a quarter of the way through) is that it is not enough for the helper person to demonstrate the “correct” autonomic response. Cori was aggressive, using her SNS. The therapist tried being calm, PNS, but this did not work. It turned out, the therapist had to match Cori, to resonate with Cori’s SNS aggression. The therapist did match Cori’s energetic, speedier pace, which allowed their two brains to “resonate.” Reading this, I had an “aha” moment. To “lend” self regulation to others, we must first “go to” where the unregulated person is “at.”

It is no good yelling at a passive person, with an excited face, “Look at me, I’m peppy! Be like me!” It is no good calmly drawling to a hyperactive person, while slouching, “Look at me… I’m calm… Be like me.” The other person’s nervous system doesn’t know how to get to where you are. If they did, they could have self-regulated already.

You have to show them that it is do-able, by going where they are first. Though it is unpleasant, you resonate your nervous system they same way theirs is being. You attune to their tune. Sympathetic vibration. And stay there a while. Feel it? Now they feel you are really present in their struggle. They can trust you, depend on you. You are connected, you are truly with them. Now you are under the same obstacles they are under. You feel the duress. If you can get yourself out of this pickle, they can too. From here, you show the first step can be made toward balance, and they match you. You take another step and another, and seconds after you are balanced, they are too.

Mental Therapy or Physical?

Apparently this is now being taught to mental therapists and psychiatrists. This is ironic because it is purely physiological. The whole theory, and all the practice can be described without mentioning mind, thoughts, cognitions, or mental states. It is simply two brains, both with sensory nerves and motor nerves, and certain hard-wired programming and certain malleable programming that can be lent and borrowed.

Since this approach is purely physical and not at all mental, I wonder when they will begin teaching this to physical therapists and physicians?


I am always looking for deeper meanings. Does this resolve the mind-body problem? René Descartes noticed that sometimes the mind influenced the body, and sometimes the body influenced the mind. He was puzzled where or how one could influence the other, since one is made of matter and located in space, while the other is not. Where could physical things grab, push, pull, or be pushed or pulled by mental things? He imagined there must be some organ where this happened, and he suggested it was the pineal gland. While the pineal gland turned out not to be correct, does the ANS now stand in as an answer to Descartes? Does the ANS translate the electricity of sensation into immaterial thoughts, feelings, interpretations and cognitions? Does the ANS translate immaterial wishes, desires, and decisions into electrical motor nerve voltage? Is the ANS what Descartes’ hoped the pineal gland would be?


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