The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Tips to Manage Your Anxiety and Stress
The pressure in our lives to meet deadlines, take care of our families, maintain relationships, and perform at our jobs can take its toll on our mental and physical health. Toss in a pandemic for additional worries and stress, and you can just imagine what is happening to our poor nervous systems. We often hear about the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight system) but the parasympathetic nervous system is ignored. This part of our autonomic nervous system (the rest and digest side), needs to be engaged in order for us to be healthy, happy humans. One way to ease stress and benefit your health is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. How do you do that? We’re glad you asked…
What is the Parasympathetic Nervous system?
The autonomic nervous system is made up of the enteric, sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s fight or flight response, flooding the body with oxygen and increasing its heart rate to get it ready to run from the perceived threat. The parasympathetic system (PSNS) slows the heart rate and calms the body so it can rest and digest. With hectic and stressful lifestyles being the norm, the body thinks it’s under threat most of the time. Though the ‘threats’ are likely everyday stresses such as doing your taxes or homeschooling your kids, the body reacts as though you need to outrun a lion. The sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate and oxygen to fuel you for that sprint. In the days when we were prey, after that burst of stress fueled energy our nervous system would calm down and the parasympathetic system (PSNS) known as the rest and digest system would take over. This system can help balance our stress response and steady our heart rate. Today, because of constant pressures and stress, the parasympathetic nervous system is rarely engaged.
The 21st Century is Full of Lions
The issue today is that since our “lions” are actually stressors such as pandemic worries, financial concerns, work and/or families and relationships, they never really go away. Unlike the chase from an actual lion which would end, (either by being eaten or having escaped), our chase is continuous. This means for many of us the PSNS never has a chance to do its job and the body stays in a constant fight or flight mode, which leads to burnout of the adrenal glands, acute anxiety and stress on the heart.
How does the PSNS affect your heart?
Heart rate variability is now being studied as a means to attaining ideal health and well being and as a way to relieve anxiety attacks and symptoms. According to an article in the journal Circulation, from the American Heart Association, a person’s resting heart rate can be one indicator of how well a person’s PSNS, is functioning. The PSNS slows the heart rate which allows our bodies to relax. Without that it is difficult to calm down, sleep and can contribute to anxiety symptoms and stress on our bodies and hearts.
Keep Calm and Carry On- Easier Said then Done
So, how do we engage our parasympathetic nervous system and take our bodies out of the heightened state and anxiety of the fight or flight zone? Vacationing pre-pandemic was one way to do it, but we can’t live on vacation and it may still be a while before we are safely able to travel again. Here are some tips on how to engage your PSNS and relieve anxiety symptoms:
Yogic breathing is said to balance the body and relax your stress response, allowing your nervous system to work together as a whole instead of having one side steal the show. According to medical journals, this type of deep breathing with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. This type of breathing can also manage our stress responses to help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat and shallow chest breathing.
Stretch it Out
Yoga is a great activity to engage your PSNS, through breath work and movements that sync up the body and mind, this ancient practise can have a positive impact on stress response, anxiety symptoms, mental and emotional health, and longevity.
Taking a mental break with meditation when you can’t take a physical one such as a vacation may have the same effect. Meditation has been shown to increase longevity, focus, reduce anxiety and improve immune responses. If it’s difficult to get time alone to meditate and focus, try it while in the shower or while walking. Meditating (just letting your thoughts come and go) while doing a mindless activity or walking is easier for some. It’s like zoning out.
What are some other ways to relieve stress and anxiety?
Go Easy on the Caffeine
Coffee, delicious. Not so great for your PSNS and anxiety symptoms though. Still need caffeine? Try green tea instead. It contains a compound called L-theanine which may block the negative impacts of caffeine and produces a calming effect on the brain. Or try this delicious Maca Latte or Iced Chocolate Elixir.
L-Theanine, as mentioned above, calms the stress response as well as certain adaptogenic herbs such as Rhodiola, and Ashwagandha. Some stress formulas contain a combination of herbs. Everyone is different so talk to a naturopath to find a stress formula that is right for you. We like: magnesium to relax muscles and the body, St. Francis Stress, and Bach Flower Remedies.
Lavender is a calming scent that helps with sleep. Other essential oil blends we like are made especially for stress include: Adaptive, and Balance. Visit Linda’s site to learn more about essential oils and how they may help.
The Bottom Line
We are living in a world of anxiety right now, and stress isn’t going anywhere. Actively managing it and regularly engaging your PSNS can help with anxiety symptoms, stress management and your overall health. If you need more help managing stress book an appointment with one of our practitioners. We’re happy to help.