Managing Stress: Tapping the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Written by Fritz Nugent
Tapping into our parasympathetic nervous system is a great way to give ourselves a clean break from stress, even if for only a short while each day.
First, stress. We all undergo a multitude of stressors in our lives. Stress has many definitions. For the purposes of this article, stress is defined as a disruption of homeostasis (in other words, encountering something new or recurring, good or bad, which forces us to adjust/compensate/adapt). This disruption can be physical (exercise, an injury), biological (a pathogen, auto-immune condition), chemical (breathing in polluted air), emotional (getting married, job loss or change), psychological (anxiety), or even spiritual.
Our Nervous System
Our autonomic nervous system combats stress through the interplay between the sympathetic nervous system, better known as “fight or flight”, and it’s reciprocal the parasympathetic nervous system, which is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system. When we undergo stress, our “fight or flight” mode kicks in. Cortisol and adrenaline surge, allowing us to combat our stressors.
Once the initial hit of the stress has passed, IDEALLY, we next shift ourselves into parasympathetic mode, which is restorative and regenerative. If our bodies and minds stay stressed for longer than necessary to combat the particular stress, this chronic stress can force our bodies to keep secreting cortisol and adrenaline, and we spend less time in parasympathetic mode. We may notice this as we lay awake in bed with our hearts thumping onward as our brains turn over the past and future, despite or need to sleep! Luckily, there are things that we can all do daily to tap into our parasympathetic and stimulate recovery.
How to Recover from Stress
To recover fully between bouts of stress (for fun, a few stressors from varied categories: exercise, viruses, marriage, anxiety and excitement about a future trip, smog, and a stubbed toe), we must tap into the parasympathetic nervous system. In order to keep training consistently in the gym and living a high-quality life for ourselves and our family and friends, we must recover well. That’s why each of us must find OUR OWN way to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system.
How to Create a Parasympathetic State
There are many ways to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system into short-term dominance. Below, I list a few small tasks or mindset shifts that we can utilize to help shift us towards a parasympathetic-dominant state. I suggest that YOU (yes, now, here, today) pick ONE or TWO that you currently do or think would be simply implemented into a life habit for you. Try them out and see how they work for you! This is about self-discovery – seeing what is ALREADY working for you and bolstering that habit, or adding a new happy habit to your bag of tricks to induce subtle but meaningful life improvement.
Parasympathetic Nervous System Stimulators
- Take an Epsom salt bath to relax and recharge
- Spending some time in the seclusion of nature can improve happiness and improve feelings of connectedness (1)
- Meditate for a few minutes each day. The benefits are numerous and well-researched. It’s not as difficult as you think, and improvement occurs rather quickly.
- Catch a Float! Sensory deprivation tanks can have a beneficial effect on stress reduction
Find yourself some Stillness by systematically reducing stress in your life through meaningful habit changes. Check that link out to learn more.
- Similar to the Stillness Article, Reduce Stress has a five-step plan to help you reduce stress. In this article, the author suggests to “connect with your food” when you eat AND utilizing several 3-5 minute mini-breaks throughout the day to help you recharge and reconnect.
- Practicing Yoga can help you tap into the parasympathetic
- Napping can have a profoundly positive effect on allowing your body to shift back into parasympathetic mode if you’ve been “on” for too long. Check this article out for napping details!
- Of course, we can stimulate parasympathetic activity through A better night’s sleep!
- And my last suggestion (you can do this anywhere, and any time) – If you’re driving, biking, or walking and you’re not late or don’t have a time crunch or deadline, slow it down. Drop your car speed down 5 mph and let people pass you. Walk slowly and look around at your world. Take in your moment, for the past is a memory and the future is undetermined.
(1) Capaldi C, Dopko RL, Zelenski J. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976.