Subconscious Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

Mary Bai, Tibialis, LLC

Stress reactions to external and internal stimuli are described as autonomic, involuntary or unconscious.

What if instead of unconscious reactions, we considered that our subconscious actually controls stress behavior? The subconscious is a very good listener, and it is acutely aware of the surroundings. It gives us ‘gut feelings’ about danger, the wonderful memories of smells, the filters applied to comments from others that wander around in the default brain trying to figure out what went so wrong. The beating of the heart is autonomous, but the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System interpretations of how we respond to stress may be more controllable than we think. Can the conscious mind impact the subconscious aspect of the Autonomic Nervous System to reduce stress?

Both the Sympathetic (Yang, fight or flight) and Parasympathetic (Yin calm down vagus nerve) functions flow through pathways in the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) as an intricate web of opposition forces striving for balance in response to internal and external stimuli. The organ based energy meridians flow through these same pathways that regulate blood pressure, heart rate, digestion and breathing rate. We don’t consciously tell the heart to beat, but do we have a say in how fast?

Fast twitch motor neurons from the Central Nervous System (CNS) activate muscles along the line of a nerve. Tendons stretch and sensory neurons engage through fascia to hold our position in spatial awareness relative to gravity. The dance between motor and sensory neurons keeps the body moving by asking one muscle group to move and the opposing muscle group to relax which allows muscles to move bones around joints.

Sensory neurons send information back to the brain about position in space and many other environmental observations. Now imagine that the subconscious is also in the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) with access to the comprehensive set of sensory neurons. Spatial consciousness of universal connectivity is a series of waves, each one representing units of life. Each wave can be a memory that triggers a reaction in the Autonomic Nervous System in the same way that touching the stove can automatically transmit ‘hot, danger, pull away’ signals.

A long-term barrage of subconscious stress can unknowingly get stuck in a cycle of growing overreaction to literally almost anything. Stress is in direct competition with muscle movement, and it tries to lock out the fast twitch activity to deploy the body’s resources for the perceived emergency status. Fast twitch muscle contractions can break through the lock out and reestablish a calmer and more normal fuel burn pattern that doesn’t need the high stress sugar mode to survive.

The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) is controlled by the subconscious, and sensory neurons from a broad range of stimuli can trigger the Autonomous Nervous System. The Central Nervous System (CNS) of the brain and spinal cord is controlled by the conscious mind and can reset the relationship between movement and spatial awareness. Gentle waves settle after the storm.

Using the conscious mind to activate fast twitch muscles at the onset of anxiety triggers can decrease the intensity of stress. The Central Nervous System must insist on being heard by the Peripheral Nervous System. Essentially, this is how exercise burns stress energy. Yet even a small amount of intentional muscle activation can reroute the impending doom of our thoughts and a subconscious hyperactive response.

Taking a deep breath activates breathing muscles and encourages the vagus nerve to assess and remedy the current situation. Becoming aware that the anxiety is starting is a good first step. Sometimes the fear of the anxiety itself becomes the driving force of stress. Positive thoughts can stop the progression of fear in its tracks. One minute fast twitch muscle actions, popular in interval training, such as shadow boxing, running in place, pushups, lunges, climbing stairs, olympic weight lifting, can shift the focus away from subconscious fear back to conscious control. Tai chi, yoga, pilates, dancing, walking, running, in good muscular form, can restore core balance between muscles and posture. Setting fun goals for reps within a minute or counting the number of seconds needed to identify pending anxiety can bring the active brain back into play. Signals from the subconscious can be reviewed rationally in meditation and prayer.

The one minute exercise can also be done lying face up or seated in a chair if there are balance issues. The posture system from the PNS isn’t needed as much in those positions, so it’s easier to activate motor neuron muscle contractions. Light muscle activation and stretching of tight areas before or in bed can train body awarenesses in a semi-conscious state. Setting peaceful sleep and dream intentions can be done during deep breathing exercises. Expanding the diaphragm is a bridge to the vagus nerve allowing calm, autonomous breathing for deep sleep, taking pressure away from active stress breathing muscles in the neck.

Information flows back and forth from the conscious to the subconscious looking for a level of homeostasis. Both states of being can coexist, working towards harmony for a calmer, healthier life.

———- Mary Bai is a Certified Massage Therapist practicing Medical Massage in Redwood City, CA. Contact: