How the ParaSympathetic System Can Help You Reduce Stress by Emma Ogilvie
Learn how your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to regulate stress levels in your body. With time and practice, you can improve how the system works, leaving you feeling more relaxed and less stressed.
When your body is under stress, your “fight-or-flight” stress response kicks in and ensures you are ready to react to the threat. In today’s hyper-competitive world, this stress response can be triggered by anything from job uncertainty to family conflict and even a hectic weekend away from the office. Stress can wreak havoc on your mood, energy levels and physical well-being, but there’s good news: your body has another type of stress response system that can help you relax and recover.
The parasympathetic nervous system is often called “rest-and-digest” because it tends to turn off or down-regulate the “fight-or-flight” stress response once a threat has passed. This article explores the parasympathetic nervous system and how it affects your body’s stress response. We also share some key habits that enable your parasympathetic response to function at its best.
What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
The parasympathetic nervous system is the branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating emotional and physical functions. Things your body does automatically, such as your heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion and exercise. This “rest-and-digest” network kicks in whenever you’re at rest or have stopped moving and is commonly associated with a sense of calm. The parasympathetic nervous system also has a central role in helping you recover from stress by re-wiring your brain to reset and relax. This means you’ll be less likely to overreact to future stressors and less likely to suffer from stress-related health issues such as inflammation, digestion problems and insomnia.
What Happens When You Get Stressed?
Your “fight-or-flight” stress response goes into hyper-alert mode as soon as you feel stressed. It causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, your muscles to tense and your brain to focus on the threat as a means of self-preservation. Unfortunately, this automatic response is also responsible for a whole host of unwanted symptoms once it’s done its job. This post-stress rebound effect can leave you feeling over-tired, over-emotional and lethargic, with digestion problems, high blood pressure and inflammation. In this sense, it’s no surprise that many people find that stress negatively impacts their physical and emotional health.
How the Parasympathetic Nervous System Helps You Recover From Stress
The parasympathetic nervous system functions as the “relaxation” response. The main advantage of the “rest-and-digest” response is that it helps you re-focus your energy and attention after a stressful encounter. This is particularly useful if you feel over-stressed or overwhelmed by daily demands. When the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, you’re likely to feel calmer, less tense and more focused. You’ll find it easier to pick up where you left off once the adrenaline rush has passed, making this a great strategy for clearing your head and recharging your battery. The parasympathetic nervous system also helps you re-pattern your brain and body during recovery.
Can you improve the functioning of your parasympathetic nervous system?
There are many ways to improve your parasympathetic nervous system, so we will start with self-awareness.
The key to cultivating a healthy parasympathetic response is identifying stress triggers and creating strategies to accommodate the upside and downside of the response. This means you need to be aware of when your “fight-or-flight” response is on overdrive.
Spotting the physical signs of stress:
- low energy
- rapid heart rate
- ache, pains and muscle tension
- blurred vision
Spotting the signs of mental and emotional stress:
- becoming easily agitated and frustrated
- feeling overwhelmed
- avoiding others
- constant worrying
- inability to focus
- poor judgement
Spend some time thinking about what external factors might contribute to feeling stressed:
- heavy workload
- difficult relationships
- job uncertainty
- Intense change
It’s not always easy but taking the time to identify and then reduce or remove the external factors that contribute to stress allows you to sync your internal rhythms better, enabling the parasympathetic response to function at its best.
4 Habits to Cultivate a Healthy Parasympathetic Response
5-second habit: Whilst at your desk, close your eyes and count to 5 whilst taking a deep breath.
5-minute habit: Take a walk to stretch your legs and rehydrate.
30-minute habit: Take a lunch break away from your desk!
Daily habit: Don’t burn the candle at both ends. If you’ve had a particularly tiring or challenging day, do something in the evening to help you switch off and relax.
Annual habit: Take your annual holiday allowance seriously. Plan your downtime throughout the year and ensure you take your full allocation. Set some boundaries: no work phones allowed!
The truth is that while your body will always respond to stress, you can help it respond more positively. Identifying your stress triggers and cultivating quick and easy stress-reduction habits can help your body sync its rhythms. Enabling the parasympathetic response to function at its best.
WRITTEN BY EMMA OGILVIE
Co-Founder of the Resilience Development Co.
Since 2013 Resilence Development Co. has helped thousands of people and organisations from around the world decrease anxiety & stress in the workplace, with significant results in improving performance, culture, positive mental health and wellbeing.