It’s amazing but true: there is actually a neurological system in your body that you can trigger at will to help yourself feel less stressed, more peaceful, and more happy.
It’s full-bore title is: “the parasympathetic wing of the autonomic nervous system” or PNS, for short.
In this article, you’ll get a crash course in your own nervous system and how the PNS fits into it, mixed with lots of ways you can use to activate your own PNS.
In brief, here’s a simple, three-part method:
- Breathe in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are the same duration; for example, count 1-2-3-4 in your mind while inhaling and 1-2-3-4 while exhaling.
- At the same time, imagine or sense that you’re breathing in and out through the area of your heart.
- Meanwhile, bring to mind a heartfelt emotion like gratitude or love.
Try this for a minute or two, and you will probably be struck by the results. Technically, you are both increasing and harmonizing the natural, tiny changes in the interval between heart beats: what’s called “heartrate variability.” Fairly large changes in that interval, and changes that vary smoothly from one beat to the next, link to cardiovascular health, improved immune system function, and elevated mood. “Rick Hanson, PhD”
- Central Nervous System (Our brain and spinal column)
- Peripheral Nervous System (Everything else)
- Somatic nervous system (How we move on purpose)
- Autonomic nervous system (Things we do without thinking, like our heartbeat)
- Sympathetic (‘fight or flight’)
- Parasympathetic (rest and recovery)
How healthy we are depends on how well balanced our autonomic nervous system is.
Exercise and the parasympathetic nervous system
Tissues need oxygen to survive. Blood brings us oxygen. When we exercise, our muscles need 15 to 25 times more oxygen than when we’re at rest. The cardiorespiratory system makes sure our blood volume is adequate to do so.
When we work out, our SNS is activated, initiating key physiological changes.
- We sweat to regulate our temperature.
- Our heart beats faster to bring more oxygen to our muscles.
- We breathe faster to take in more oxygen. We might even pant.
- Our liver releases glucose for energy.
- Our blood pressure increases (more volume).
- Our blood moves from our organs to our skeletal muscles.
(That’s why we don’t eat before we exercise. Exercise slows digestion. Eating makes your body choose between strength and speed or digestion. A good rule of thumb is to avoid small meals or snacks for an hour before exercise, and to wait 3 to 4 hours after a large meal.)
These changes make sure we are ready for action. But what happens when the SNS is overstimulated?
Here are 7 fixes to restore the balance between your SNS and PSNS.
- Reduce Stress
Stress is ubiquitous. Good health depends on removing or reducing whatever stressors we can control, and reduce our reactions to those we can’t
We can’t remove all external stress. Meditation is the best way to decrease our reactivity to stress we can’t control. It teaches us to ignore triggers. It reduces our breathing, slows our heart, and decreases our blood pressure: all signs of PSNS activation. Meditations reduces lactic acid in our muscles, promoting recovery.
Regular massage has been shown to restore balance between SNS and PSNS. Massage makes us stronger, calmer, and more able to fight infection. By activating the PSNS, massage promotes recovery. It retrains the body to move more readily into PSNS even when we’re stressed.
Breathing straddles the peripheral nervous system and the autonomic system. It happens automatically but we can also control it. We can hold our breathe for example, but we cannot stop our heart. Slowed breathing is a hallmark of PSNS. But it’s not just a symptom, it’s a signal. Slowing your breathing intentionally tells your SNS than things are okay. This activates the PSNS.
Daily breathing exercises will strengthen your lungs, improve your immune system, and decrease your resting heart rate. Here’s a simple way to activate your PSNS. Inhale for a count of 2. Hold that breathe for a count of 5. Exhale for a count of 7. Repeat.
Like meditation, yoga will bring you into PSNS, It also bolsters your ability to decrease SNS activation when you are stressed.
Daily or weekly yoga classes, or even a quick yoga video at home, will improve your strength, flexibility and breathing.
Can what you eat affect your SNS/PSNS balance? Yes. Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and sugar will facilitate PSNS. An anti-stress diet brings the right mix of protein, minerals and other nutrients to support PSNS.
Yes, intense exercise, even the idea of it, stimulates our SNS. But regular aerobic exercisesuch as light jogging can actually decrease SNS activity and activate our PSNS. The key is moderation and measurement.
Our sympathetic nervous system is key to our survival. But like the sympathy of a well-meaning friend, too much can be, well, too much. The more time we spend in PSNS, the healthier and stronger we’ll be. These 7 tips are a great start. “Ben Kochavy”