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Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) automatically regulates the function of body systems outside of voluntary control. The Autonomic Nervous System handout is designed to help clients understand their body sensations and reactions as a function of the automatic function of their nervous system.

Many clients have body sensations which they do not fully understand and subsequently experience as aversive. Others experience automatic body reactions during trauma to which they make attributions concerning responsibility and blame, with a common result being an experience of shame. The Autonomic Nervous System handout is designed to help clients understand their body sensations and reactions as the automatic operation of their nervous system. A proper understanding of the ANS can help to motivate therapeutic activities which stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and compassion focused therapy (CFT) increasingly integrate neuroscience and it is helpful for clinicians to be able to offer explanations for client experience at biological levels.

In summary, the human nervous system is divided into:

  • The central nervous system (CNS) which consists of the brain and spinal cord), and
  • The peripheral nervous system (PNS) which consists of the nerves and ganglia outside the spinal cord).

The PNS is subdivided into:

  • The somatic nervous system (SNS or voluntary nervous system) which is responsible for voluntary control of body
    movements and our senses such as taste and touch, and
  • The autonomic nervous system (ANS) which automatically regulates the function of body systems outside of voluntary
    control.

The autonomic nervous system has three branches:

  1. The sympathetic nervous system which is activated in response to stress. It controls ‘fight or flight’ responses.
  2. The parasympathetic nervous system which is activated during calm times and is often considered the ‘rest and digest’ or
    ‘feed and breed’ system. It promotes growth and energy storage.
  3. The enteric nervous system which controls the gastrointestinal system and which is sometimes referred to as the ‘second
    brain’.

This is a Psychology Tools information handout. Suggested uses include:

  • Client handout – use as a psychoeducation resource
  • Discussion point – use to provoke a discussion and explore client beliefs
  • Therapist learning tool – improve your familiarity with a psychological construct
  • Teaching resource – use as a learning tool during training
  • Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 15(3), 199-208.
  • Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. Holt paperbacks.
  • Schmidt, A; Thews, G (1989). “Autonomic Nervous System”. In Janig, W. Human Physiology (2 ed.). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag. pp. 333–370.

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