When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, it results in the activation of the fight-or-flight response. The sympathetic nervous system is integral for our survival as it allows us to quickly respond to threats. But, as Psychology Today points out, many people live in a constant state of anxiety, which in turn, triggers this response regularly.
On the flip side, when the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, it produces a feeling of relaxation and helps to calm both the mind and body. Due to modern lifestyles, these two systems can get out of balance where one becomes more active, and the other, less so.
Generally speaking, the parasympathetic nervous speaking is usually underactive, while the fast-paced nature of work and life means the sympathetic nervous system is often overactive.
The consequences of stress
Living in this constant state of stress isn’t healthy for your body and while it can be used productively in the short-term to spur you on to complete tasks, when your body is constantly under stress it can lead to a number of cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural issues.
Some of the symptoms of these include memory problems, the inability to concentrate, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, frequent colds, aches and pains as well as procrastination and the using of substances like alcohol and drugs to relax.
Stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system
There are a number of ways you can calm your sympathetic nervous system down while also stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, and it requires you actively taking the time to chill out. Boring, but necessary.
According to the book, Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, PhD and neurologist Richard Mendius, M.D., the easiest way to do this is through a combination of breathwork and mindfulness.
— Breathe from your diaphragm: Actively breathing from your diaphragm stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system as it slows down your breathing. Psychology Today recommends putting your hand on your stomach and if it rises up and down slightly as you breathe, this is diaphragm breathing.
— Use mindfulness: Practising mindfulness alongside breathwork helps you stay present in the moment while also increasing feelings of calmness. This helps to balance the workings of both systems and increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.
— Use visualisations: The power of the mind can’t be understated and something as simple as using visualisations can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Psychology Today recommends visualising yourself in a peaceful place — it could be at the beach, in a forest, wherever feels most relaxing to you — while also thinking about the sounds and feelings associated with this place. The feeling of calmness should wash over you and slow the sympathetic nervous system down.
— Run your fingers over your lips: It sounds wild but according to Buddha’s Brain, there are parasympathetic fibres spread throughout your lips so touching them stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Try it for yourself (with clean hands!) and you’ll be pleased to discover it does actually create a sense of calm almost instantly.