Our nervous system is overwhelmed by experiences and thoughts from an increasingly hectic environment. At work, we’re expected to do more with less resources – and often less pay. At home, we don’t get any reprieve, modern technology has invaded our sanctuaries with smart devices everywhere. It’s no wonder that we feel under constant stress, always ready for action.
But what if you could dampen your stress response – how would your life improve? Well, you actually have control levers you may not be utilizing. Let’s dig deeper into your parasympathetic nervous system.
What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
The parasympathetic nervous system is one branch of the autonomic nervous system. This is an autonomous set of nerves regulating physical functions that we don’t perform consciously, such as breathing and digestion.
The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” system. That’s because it regulates the more mundane processes that are essential for our survival. These include: digestion, urination, production of saliva and mucous, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.
The other branch of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system, also referred to as the “flight or fight” system. Just like the parasympathetic nervous system, it is crucial for our survival. That’s because it helps us respond quickly when we face a threat. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the brain releases cortisol which helps us stay alert, and ready to run from the danger.
The Consequences of an Overactive Sympathetic Nervous System
The primordial goal of the sympathetic nervous system is to enable mammals, including humans, react to life-threatening situations. The problem though is that the sympathetic nervous system can’t tell the difference between a real threat (such as being eaten by a tiger) or a perceived threat, such as a looming deadline at work.
Hence with our hectic pace of life, our sympathetic nervous system is often in overdrive – and this has major consequences for our health. For instance, overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system is linked to several cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, chronic heart failure and ischemic heart disease. It can also lead to kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and obstructive sleep apnea. Furthermore, it can lead to brain changes responsible for depression, anxiety, and addiction.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Stress Response
The antidote to an overactive sympathetic nervous system is to boost the parasympathetic nervous system. When you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, hormones are released which help relax body and mind.
Here are 4 natural ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system:
- Touch your lips gently
Did you know that your lips contain parasympathetic fibers? Thus, by touching your lips gently (or kissing), you’re able to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system directly.
So, the next time you’re at your desk trying to meet a work deadline, take a second to touch your lips, may be with your tongue. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how calm you feel afterwards.
- Engage in deep breathing
Take a second to pay attention to your breath. Is it fast and shallow? If so, you’re probably in “fight or flight” mode.
You can dampen the sympathetic nervous system right now by breathing from your diaphragm. Breathing from your diaphragm helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, especially by stimulating the vagus nerve. This in turn helps you feel calmer.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, place your hand on your stomach and note if it rises and falls while you’re breathing. If it does, you’re breathing from your diaphragm.
- Practice mindfulness
Our sympathetic nervous system is constantly being stimulated by experiences and thoughts – we’re often ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. When we practice mindfulness –the art of focusing on the present moment while engaging our senses– we activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
And the best thing about mindfulness is that you don’t have to be in a yogic state to meditate. You can practice mindfulness and mindful framing while doing any other activity – whether you’re eating, taking a walk, or even speaking with friends.
- Engage in visualization
Another way you can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system is to use mental imagery. Visualize yourself in peaceful surroundings – whether at the beach, in a lush forest, or a field of flowers. Utilize all your senses when you visualize. Hear the sound of the waves crashing, feel the spray of the ocean, smell the ocean salt. Notice how relaxed you feel. Practice the ‘sensational scan.’
By activating your parasympathetic nervous system, you’ll be able to reach new heights, even experience for a moment ‘heaven on earth.’ Once you are able to master these experiences, you should weave them altogether and potentially reach a steady sense of well-being. You will discover how a beautiful life is not outside, but primarily inside you.