Stress can keep your body in a constant state of fight-or-flight. This pressure can cause dozens of health problems down the road. Stress responses evolved to keep you safe in life-or-death situations, but did you know that there’s another nervous system in your body dedicated to calming you down? Understanding this system can be a big help with stress relief.
What Is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
The parasympathetic nervous system is connected to the sympathetic nervous system, which starts the fight or flight response. According to Harvard Health, a stress response is only useful for brief intervals, so the parasympathetic nervous system switches you into “rest and digest” mode for recovery. Its nerves extend from your face, through your torso, and into the bladder.
How Can You Use the Parasympathetic Nervous System for Stress Relief and Mental Health?
Modern life can weaken this system. If you often need help falling asleep quickly, you probably have an underperforming parasympathetic nervous system. Here are eight easy ways to stimulate these nerves.
1. Practice Deep Breathing
In fight or flight, your breathing is shallow. If your breaths don’t return to long, slow inhales and exhales, your body can miss the signal to calm down.
Deep breathing also brings attention and motion to the lungs, where the Vagus nerve is located. This nerve runs down the middle of the chest and is the cornerstone of the parasympathetic nervous system. To activate it, breathe deeply and picture a warm ribbon of light in the center of your chest.
2. Touch Your Lips
Your lips contain a surprising amount of parasympathetic nerves. Running a finger lightly across your lips can stimulate them and quickly calm you down. In public, consider carrying lip balm that can serve this same purpose with zero raised eyebrows.
3. Gently Stretch Your Chest and Sternum
An even more powerful way to stimulate the Vagus nerve is to stretch the front of the chest. Be gentle, as the joints at the front of the ribs aren’t particularly flexible for most people. Even a light stretch may feel intense.
One great way to release tension around the sternum is a heart melting pose in yoga, or Anahatasana. It’s similar to a child’s pose, as you’re kneeling with your arms stretched in front of you and your head down. However, lifting the hips allows for a much greater stretch across the front of the chest. As you relax, you may feel an odd sensation of your heart seeming to melt into the floor — That’s the Vagus nerve working.
4. Try a Weighted Blanket
Compression is relaxing for some people because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Hugs or weighted blankets bring a physical sensation of safety.
5. Rest Your Legs Vertically Along a Wall
For an easy way to stimulate digestion and the parasympathetic nerves in the intestines, lay on your back with your legs resting vertically on a wall. This sends blood to your midsection with the added benefit of relieving pain in your feet or legs.
6. Cool Down After Every Workout
Your sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system can kick in during a difficult workout. Be sure to turn it off by performing a dedicated cooldown involving stretching, deep breathing and relaxation.
7. Take a Walk Outside
Chronic stress can be caused by racing thoughts rather than actual danger. Focusing on your surroundings in a safe space tells your body it’s ok to relax. Take in the sights, sounds and smells of a backyard or park to relieve stress quickly.
8. Visualize a Calm Space
If you can’t physically take a walk, close your eyes and visualize a calming space. This works surprisingly well if you keep at it for at least 3-5 minutes.
Our bodies are like metal springs: They can’t be wound indefinitely without damage. The parasympathetic nervous system’s job is to unwind tension and return the body to a resting state. Be aware of its triggers to reduce stress quickly and efficiently.