Working with the pulsating autonomic nervous system

The ANS is the regulatory branch of the central nervous system providing homeostasis and a central communication for our entire body and for our experience in the environment; both the social and natural environment and our inner sensational environment. It is important that we see the ANS as the interface between the mind and body, and also between the world and ourselves. The ANS has been researched and investigated by many branches of science. The ANS also has been a focus of many questions surrounding human behavior: body, mind, and self. Somatics supports both a theoretical umbrella and an interpretation of research supporting the lived experience, which focuses on the ANS. The research available is both qualitative and quantitative and many years or clinician experience provides theoretical, and practical experience based on observing the ANS. Essentially the literature that I review and the evidence embraces the fundamental principle of Somatics, that we are body-mind-consciousness, integrated and whole, experiencing life from the inside out and outside in. As Caldwell (1997) says, “in a sense we could say that somatic psychology seeks a unified field theory of human nature.” (p.2) This unified field theory of human nature requires that we as somatic scholars become master synthesizers, inter-disciplinarians who can pull from a range of fields. With this in mind I am seeking to synthesize a range of models, information, and research to introduce an educational experience that is both somatically healing and psychologically educational.

The Pulsation Model
A major thinker and creator of Somatic Psychology was Wilhelm Reich. Reich’s (1942) charge-discharge or ANS pulsation model can provide insight into deeper functions and implications of the ANS. Reich’s tension-charge-discharge-relaxation model developed from observing how the ANS is a sensory processing system as well as a balancing system. Reich proposed that we pulsate, as our ANS flows between parasympathetic (expanding) and sympathetic (contracting). The free oscillation of the ANS is optimal for health, both mental and physical, and that balance is not a static state but rather the ANS’s ability to freely move between the two poles, expanding and contracting. Because life can be traumatic, this pulsation can become interrupted and thus stuck in one of the four possible beats or rhythms: tension-charge-discharge-relaxation. The “stuck” is held in place by muscular rigidity, thus helping the muscle move through the four beat cycle, would help the body return to a place of flexible mobility and ANS regulation. The theoretical foundation of Reich’s function of the charge-discharge framework is the free pulsation of the ANS, thus our biological consciousness can freely adapt and respond to a diverse environment and return to homeostasis. The movement of energy out from the ANS uses the parasympathetic pathway and the movement of energy toward the core uses the sympathetic pathway. According to Reich: “we grasp that the parasympathetic nervous system operates in the direction of expansion, “out of the self-toward the world,” pleasure and joy; whereas the sympathetic nervous system operates in the direction of contraction, “away from the world-into the self,” sadness and un-pleasure” or possibly into a protective mode (p.288). Although his statement may be accurate within his clinical observations, research we will later investigate shows that both sides of the ANS will innervate in either pleasure or pain. Reich explained that bioelectric energy moves in and out of the “vegetative core” and he links this core to the abdominal region as the production place of biophysical energy. This energy can be witnessed looking at the natural flow of the breath, by observing the diaphragm and the movement of the body while breathing. His framework is used to this day by a range of Reichian practioners, clinicians, and is essentially a map for trained therapists looking to witness the ANS in breath, body movement, cognition, pathology, and in relationship, and response to the therapist. Clients are then able to process unprocessed experience (trauma, attachment issues, self structure issues), thus allowing for a greater range of flexibility, adaptation, deeper contact, and tolerating intimacy (Aposhyan, 2004, Buhl, 2001, Grossinger, 1995, Totten, 2003). Although Reich’s model is not complete, it offers a simplified way to understand one primary function of the ANS, which is to pulsate, digest, metabolize, and balance sensory experience in the movement of breath, body, and mind.