What is NeuroRelaxation?
Dr Norma Doidge defined NeuroRelaxation as the sustained, balanced internal state of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) in which the three master neural circuits making up the ANS (see below) effortlessly shift back and forth to optimize accommodation to the ambient environment while supporting physical renewal, cognitive attention, and psychological wellbeing.
NeuroRelaxation provides both optimal response to daytime opportunities and challenges as well as restorative sleep at night. The NeuroRelaxation state is necessary for recovery from physical injury or illness. It provides the neurological foundation necessary for renewal and health, learning, psychological wellbeing and a restorative sleep-wake rhythm.
The NeuroRelaxation Program is a systematic approach to training medical patients to improve their ability to regulate their daytime stress responses and to improve their night time sleep patterns. It uses Polyvagal Theory to organize clinical interventions in a sequence that creates optimum change for patients.
The Three Neural Circuits of the ANS
Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is your body's basic survival system. The ANS organizes how each of your body's many organ systems function from moment to moment. The ANS will shift between internal neural circuits in whatever way it thinks will maximize your chances of survival. This automatic shifting occurs without conscious attention and is called Neuroception.
To accomplish the goal of survival, the ANS has three dedicated neural circuits each of which is programmed to operate from birth. Each neural 'master circuit' allows us to sustain an inner climate in the body that promotes a different goal.
The oldest of the neural circuits is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) or the 'rest and restore' system. It is organized around the goal of ignoring outside demands so that the body's internal systems can be recharged. Your heart and your brain are the two organs that require the most time to recharge for the next day. Recharging these requires a sustained block of inactivity free from the interruptions of daytime survival demands. For most of us this happens during our nightly sleep and it takes seven or more hours to accomplish.
The second neural system is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and it is organized around the goal of defending yourself against dangers that could mean death. In such emergencies the 'fight or flight' system mobilizes an hormonal cascade that provides a major surge of energy to give you the ability to defend yourself from danger. Apart from such emergencies the same system functions each day to 'delight and excite', and provides just enough energy to meet the variable challenge demands of daily life.
The third neural system is the Social Engagement System (SES). This is the most recently evolved part of the ANS, and it is what organizes our behaviour to bond with others. When we have recharged, from a restorative sleep, and feel safe from danger our neural circuits instinctively become social, looking to be connected with and deriving enjoyment from friends and others we are bonded with. During mild to moderate stresses this system can help manage stress by engaging the circuits to 'tend and befriend'.
How do the three Neural Circuits work together?
The daily signals of light and dark provide a powerful cue to entrain the nervous system to adapt to life on earth. A predictable and sustained period of dark provides the opportunity for the nervous system to mirror this environmental 'down time' by organizing itself to promote an internal sustained period of 'down time' to organize its restorative and maintenance processes.
A person who has maintained a regular and predictable sleep pattern for a year or more will have a nervous system entrained to shifting predictably to dominant PNS control at night. During the daytime the SNS is available to respond to challenges and danger with measured bursts of activity, while supporting a dominant SES. This automatic shifting back and forth between SNS, PNS and SES neural circuits is unconscious and continuous. Dr. Stephen Porges has termed this adaptive process 'Neuroception'.
What does Chronic Stress do to the ANS?
If you have struggled with chronic, unpredictable, or intense stresses the SNS can shift into a pattern of hyperarousal. In the hyperaroused state the SNS becomes the dominant system day and night. As a result the PNS is not able to take over neural control of body systems at night and restorative functions are compromised or aborted. Because the SNS believes that you are in danger (some animal may come to eat you), it will not allow you let your guard down by going to sleep. As a result you lose many or all of the restorative functions of sleep for heart, body and mind. Cardiovascular competence is undermined by heightened blood pressure, increased cholesterol and dysregulation of metabolic hormones like insulin. The immune system is compromised increasing the risks of cancer.
How does the NeuroRelaxation Program Help Medical Patients Recover?
The NeuroRelaxation program provides a targeted group intervention program that teaches participants skills that boost PNS activity and permit a balanced state (NeuroModulation). With continued practice this balanced state becomes more integrated into normal night-time neural functions. Across months this results in the rewiring of the default neural circuits, which now support a sustained pattern of NeuroRelaxation. Achieving this entrained, balanced, internal ANS state is necessary to supports restorative sleep, physical renewal, psychological wellbeing and learning.