One of the Best Ways to Relieve Stress is with the Parasympathetic Nervous System
It can be dizzying to stay on top of new health information. It’s almost like needing to continually update apps on your phone. But if learning about the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) were like an app update, this is one you really need.
In one word, here’s why it matters: stress.
If you can learn how to activate your PNS, which is your body’s relax or “rest and digest” response, it can help lessen the ill effects of being excessively stressed.
But before we get into that, it’s important first to fully understand how important it is to keep stress levels in a healthy range.
Increased Stress Levels
It’s no secret that we’re all living through a very stressful time. A survey conducted in March 2022 by the American Psychological Association and the Harris Poll, called “Stress in America,” found that Americans’ stress levels are extremely elevated, driven by multiple factors, including: the COVID pandemic, rising inflation, and the war in Ukraine, to name a few.
A little stress is okay, maybe even helpful. It gets us to do what we need to do. But all these new stressors, on top of the pressures of modern living, can lead to serious health risks.
Prior to the pandemic, the American Institute of Stress reported that, on average, upwards of 60 percent of primary care doctor visits were related to stress. That figure has likely increased during the pandemic for people of all ages.
How Your Body Responds to Stress
Normally, our fight-or-flight stress response is triggered by real or perceived threats, like a car coming at you while you’re driving, or a barking dog chasing you.
Your brain perceives the threat, sends a message, and stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released. Your heart rate increases, digestion slows or stops, reflexes are quickened, and in a flash you can either fight the threat or flee to safety. Also, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated.
When the threat passes, your brain sends another message, and your body turns off the secretion of the stress hormones. The PNS is activated. Your heart slows, muscles relax, digestion turns back on.
It’s a period of calm, rest, and recovery. Your body returns to homeostasis.
This sounds simple enough. However, today our brains can overreact to non-life-threatening stressors all day long whether that’s a looming work deadline, persistent worry about a child, or simply driving in traffic. This is especially true for those who suffer from anxious feelings or have had trauma in their past.
These perceived threats cause the SNS to stay engaged. Stress hormones continue to be released.
When the stress response is prolonged, day in and day out, it can lead to severe stress, and this is bad for your health. It can suppress your immune system and increase your risk for all sorts of problems including:
- anxious feelings
- low mood
- digestive problems
- joint and muscle pain
- heart health issues
- addictive behavior
- weight gain
To avoid the above issues, it’s critical to learn how to calm an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
Some of the Best Ways to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
The SNS and the PNS (along with the enteric nervous system that regulates digestion) make up your body’s autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system. It automatically regulates several processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.
The SNS generally gets activated with the stress response and activities that require effort such as vigorous exercise. The PNS comes into play during times of rest and recovery, when you sleep, rest, or digest food, etc. The SNS and PNS are like a seesaw going back and forth throughout the day.
To help keep excessive stress in check, here are several ways to unlock your inner relax response.
Laughter is good medicine! Enjoy it often.
While at first it activates the SNS, as your laughter calms down, the PNS activates, bringing you into a relaxed state. Laughter can help relieve emotional stress and general tension.
So, watch a comedy or tell a joke. Or you can try laughing yoga, which involves a series of movement and breathing exercises to deliberately encourage laughter. Laughter is so powerful, there’s even evidence that suggests simply hearing laughter turns on PNS activity.
Similar to laughter, moderate exercise engages the SNS at first, but it then unlocks the PNS leaving you very relaxed after a workout session. But don’t overdo it! Make sure your weeks are filled with enjoyable, gentle exercise you’ll actually do – it could be a simple walk, dancing around for several songs, or treading water in a pool for 20 minutes.
- Listen to Music
Research shows that listening to pleasant music increases parasympathetic activity. Or try a sound therapy class, which usually involves sitting quietly amidst the sounds of Tibetan singing bowls or gongs.
- Relax in Nature
Whether you take a walk in a natural environment or simply look at images of nature, they both can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. One study showed enhanced PNS engagement after just five minutes of viewing urban green space.
Send Stress Packing
Of course, you can discover many more stress-relieving practices on your own. If you think about what relaxes you, it’s probably something that will help engage your body’s PNS!
At BrainMD, we’re dedicated to providing the highest purity nutrients to improve your physical health and overall well-being. For more information about our full list of brain healthy supplements, please visit us at BrainMD.
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