Sound Healing Demystified
The Autonomic Nervous System and Sound Healing
Medical research estimates as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related. Via the body’s nervous system, stress directly interferes with your physical functioning and bodily processes, as well as your mental health via the body’s nervous system.
Some background information before we jump into how sound healing can help:
The nervous system is divided into the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS is made up of the brain and the spinal cord. On the other hand, the PNS is divided into two pathways, efferent and afferent. Say you touch a stove. The afferent neurons tell you it’s hot. The efferent neurons tell you to pull away. From the PNS we have voluntary motions (pulling your hand away) and involuntary motions (your heart beat speeds up). It is this involuntary motion that makes up your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is divided into the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic system.
The sympathetic system can be thought of as the gas pedal. It prepares the body for action in order to keep safe. It senses a danger or a threat, and the body goes into fight or flight because it is concerned with protection and survival. In so doing, the body releases cortisol as a stress hormone response from the adrenal glands. People with trauma and anxiety for instance can have higher levels of cortisol as their baseline.
In contrast, the parasympathetic system is concerned with resting and relaxing. When the parasympathetic system is healthy, we have healthier digestion patterns. It is the cause of a decreased heart rate and lower blood pressure, and an overall sense of safety, calm, and relaxation. Within the parasympathetic system is the influence of 75 percent of the vagus nerve’s functioning, responsible for much of our organ functioning. We can clearly see the importance of maintaining homeostatis between the SNS and the PNS. Our organ systems, because they are regulated by the vagus nerve, which is mostly within the PNS, can suffer from imbalance of the ANS.
The body unfortunately can be dominate in one or the other. You can have a dominate SNS which can result from trauma, resulting in constant stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and even digestive issues. One can also have PNS dominance, which manifests as depression, low blood pressure, fatigue, and a feeling of disconnection.
So, what does all of this have to do with sound healing?
How can sound help someone who has SNS dominance? Having relaxing sounds with harmonious intervals, for instance from Tibetan singing bowls, helps to reduce the amount of cortisol that is released. The healing intervals also send a message to the PNS that you are safe and your body can relax physically and emotionally. Having a sound therapist use instruments to introduce binaural beat patterns to bring you to a lower, calmer brainwave state (say alpha or theta) that reduces anxiety and helps take the edge off. Sound healing also uses breathing patterns mixed with vocal toning, or humming, (even singing) that can achieve balance between the SNS and the PNS. A final way might be toning the vagus nerve with tuning forks to bring in the relaxation response, again sending a signal to the body that their environment is safe. Gongs, bowls, pipes…all can play a role to help the client enter into relaxation and balance if played properly.
In PNS dominate persons, using more releasing intervals would be appropriate. Having the client using the drum in a variety of patterns and beat would bring about more equilibrium in the ANS. Using mantras, particular with varying melody, as well as vocal toning and various pitches can also help bring balance to PNS dominance. Shakers and rattles also have the same healing effect. Again, with the use of binaural beat patterns, the client can be brought up to a more beta or awakened state. Some symptoms of PNS dominance might be 'butterflies' in the stomach, dissociation, a slow pulse, and perhaps overall lethargy and depression.
So, as we see, the ANS, and maintaining homeostatis, is vital to our health physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. One of sound healing’s greatest attributes is its ability to bring about this balance, and help to create patterns for lasting change. If any of this 'sounds' true, perhaps a sound healing could be what your body is craving for healing.
Thank you to Dr. Anu French for her assistance in this article!
Dr. Aria Thome
Aria is a sound healer based in St. Louis, Missouri