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The Unseen Influence

In the dance of relationships, a big part of what influences our experience lies unseen—a silent orchestrator behind the scenes. Amidst the complexity of thoughts, emotions, and narratives lies the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a vital regulator of our body's automatic functions, yet often overlooked in discussions about relationships. Understanding the ANS and its impact on relationships is essential, especially for men who often grapple with the conflicting societal expectations of our being open and authentic but also strong and stoic.

The ANS operates outside of conscious control, divided into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS, commonly known as the 'fight or flight' response, triggers when the need for action is detected to prepare the body to respond. Conversely, the PNS fosters a 'rest and digest' state, promoting relaxation and reflection. The interplay between these systems significantly influences our emotional state, and plays a big role in how we interact in relationship.

For men, societal norms have historically encouraged emotional suppression, favoring stoicism over vulnerability. That doesn’t mean this is our natural mode of being, nor the best one for us. I can totally geek out on how this came to be through the generations of Western society, but that’s another article. Understanding how the ANS impacts emotional regulation could provide a gateway to a healthier and more satisfying way of living with our feelings.

When men grasp the ANS's role in emotional responses, it can empower us to navigate and express emotions in a way that can transform how we experience a lot of things—even conflict.

SNS activation happens when that unconscious system detects signals it has learned to interpret as threats. It’s designed to look for dangers in the environment, hostility in others, etc. This is another reason why exploring your story is so important; getting to know the language your ANS has learned is crucial to growing in mindfulness.

But this activation often happens before we know it. Heightened stress levels can cause impulsivity, defensiveness, or withdrawal, hindering effective communication. Men, often conditioned to handle stress independently and keep emotions under wraps, benefit greatly when we begin to recognize these physiological responses, welcome our experience, and regulate it from an informed space.

Techniques such as deep breathing, cognitive refocusing, or seeking support can help modulate SNS activity on the fly. In the larger scheme, we want to build a better relationship with the parts of ourselves that emerge, and the underlying truth of what they're telling us. EMDR therapy, which directly engages with these unconscious systems, can help make this progress quicker and more resilient.

When we begin to really get the hang of this process, we expand the tools available to us even when we aren’t at our best.

Moreover, the PNS's role in fostering relaxation and emotional regulation is equally crucial. Cultivating activities that stimulate the PNS—such as meditation, regular exercise, or spending quality time with a partner—can enhance emotional connection and intimacy.

Understanding how to activate these systems can aid men in fostering emotional openness and bonding within their relationships. A big piece of my focus as a therapist is not only helping my client become aware of their ANS, but using the therapeutic relationship as an arena in which it can begin to relearn its language. When this process really gets going, even conflict feels different—in a great way.

It’s so important for counseling to be a whole-person approach. And a lot of times, what’s getting in the way of us understanding and embracing the secrets of authenticity, empathy, and intimacy lies outside of how we cognitively operate. This doesn’t change anything about our responsibility, but it informs how we move forward taking all of ourselves into account.


Mike Ensley, LPC is a professional counselor and founder of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.


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