Stress and the Autonomic nervous system part 2

Last week I wrote about how to dial down the sympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) to help with stress. This week I want to write about activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is relatively easy but unless we have decreased the sympathetic drive it is often like putting a band aid on a laceration that requires suturing. It might help a little but eventually we need to treat the root cause, which is the sympathetic overdrive. No amount of meditation and mindfulness can help in some situations and especially if we are burnt out or have adrenal fatigue we need to address the stressors at the same time as activating the PNS

To activate the PNS the following will help.

  • Meditation

Meditation is great for calming the sympathetic system and engaging the parasympathetic instead. If you’re like me you might get a little anxious in formal meditation! “I’m not doing it right, my mind won’t stop thinking, I can’t concentrate on my breath because I’m worried about something that has happened to me.” Sometimes our brains are just thinking too much.

I prefer a walking meditation or a guided visualisation exercise. But many people find formal meditation very calming and centring. Any form of meditation helps you get in touch with your inner self and its wisdom.

  • Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about focussing your awareness on what you are doing in the present moment. It involves being aware of what is happening right now and not thinking about the past or future. It is like meditation in that it calms the mind and helps to de-stress.

It is relatively easy to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life. You can do the dishes mindfully; paying attention to what you are doing rather than being off in your head thinking about everything that you think you need to be worrying about. You can eat mindfully, drink a cup of tea mindfully, exercise mindfully, you can do any activity where you focus your awareness on that activity.

Mindfulness helps us live more in the present moment.

  • Spend time in nature

Getting closer to nature and the earth helps calm the ANS. It helps if we connect with nature mindfully. Sometimes I go for a walk along the beach but am so much in my head thinking about everything that I hardly pay attention to where I am. When I realise this I try to bring my awareness to the waves and the wind and the sky and my brain starts to calm down a little. Of course even when my brain is in overdrive while I walk I am connecting with the earth but when I bring my awareness to my surroundings and am present this is even more grounding and calming.

To actively ground yourself will decrease the electrical charge in your body which helps relaxation and healing. To do this you need to be in direct contact with the earth; walking barefoot, sitting on the ground or hugging a tree are all good ways to earth yourself. You can also buy earthing devices, which may help if you live in an apartment or can’t get out to actively earth yourself.

  • Deep breathing

Many of us breathe on a shallow level. This is both a result of being anxious and wired, and a cause. If we do some deep breathing, into our bellies, this activates the parasympathetic system and slows things down. Some people just don’t know how to breathe deeply so if you find it hard to take a deep breath and feel your belly expand then you might need to practice. It is best to practice when you are feeling calm.

Lie down with your hands on your belly and slowly breathe in through the nose. Let the air expand your rib cage and feel you diaphragm descend and your belly expand outwards against your hands. Slowly breathe out feeling your belly descend and your chest compress. Let these deep breaths flow in and out with your belly rising and falling. You might like to sigh the breath out your mouth and feel the stress leaving your body as you do so.

Once you have mastered the deep breathing you can do some anytime. Taking a few deep breaths will calm you if you’re anxious or hurried. Even when you’re not anxious it helps to take deep breaths to centre yourself and bring more calm into your day.

  • Relaxation

Any form of relaxation can turn on our PNS. I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV with a glass of wine although this may help for some people. I find the best way to relax is to lie on the earth and just sink in. Other people like to do relaxation exercises and there are many of these available on phone or computer. Or you might like to just lie and listen to calming music while you relax. Combining relaxation with deep breathing is great.

Whatever way works best for you will help in your healing. And if you’re busy just stopping for a few minutes to consciously relax will bring some calm back.

  • Exercise such as yoga, qi gong or tai chi

Yoga, Qi gong and tai chi are all wonderful for calming the SNS and activating the PNS. They work with the energies of the body and help us balance our ANS. There are so many options available to practice these programs that we really have no excuse for not incorporating them into our wellness routine. Classes can be taken locally or online and the benefit from even a few minutes a day is that our nervous system becomes calmer almost immediately.

  • Rituals

Many rituals can have a calming effect. Lighting a candle or incense in a mindful manner can be a useful ritual that gets the body ready to relax. A warm bath before bed or for children the ritual of a bedtime story calms the ANS down. You can make up your own rituals and they have a way of imbedding in your life so that as soon as you begin the ritual the body knows it is relaxing.

  • Sleep

Sleep down regulates the SNS and up regulates the PNS so I have put it in both lists. Sleep is just really important to healing and particularly if stress is a big component of your illness it is vital to be sleeping well.

  • Play more

Not many of us spend much time playing as we get older. But play is wonderful for decreasing stress especially when we do it mindfully and pay attention to the play rather than what else we think we should be doing.

Playing with children helps remind us that play is a great way to learn and also to relax. There are many ways to play including board or card games (although not those that make you highly competitive which activates the SNS) and creative play such as pottery, woodworking, painting, sewing and other crafts.

  • Music and dance

Both listening to and playing music help activate the PNS. Although some music, such as hard rock or heavy metal may stimulate the SNS in some people. It’s the same with dance, which mostly activates the rest and relax response but if it’s too hard rock or the like it may stimulate the SNS for some of us.

Most of us know which music and/or dancing is good for us to de-stress with. I have found that my stress levels are much lower if I listen to music when I drive rather than talk radio or podcasts. We seem to want to fill our lives with information and don’t always take time to just listen to music. Try to just sit and listen to some music rather than doing something else at the same time.

Dancing is a wonderful release and we can do it by ourselves and just move to music any way we want. Some people take classes or go to dance groups but for many people this adds an extra stress to their life – either making life busier or adding a competitive nature to the dancing.

  • Calming herbs

If we need more help calming our SNS down and ramping up the PNS then sometimes herbs will help. Simple everyday herbs such as chamomile tea and lavender oil have been shown in some trials to help with anxiety and stress. Other herbs also shown to be useful are passionflower, kava, lemon balm and valerian. Growing these herbs in your garden is also great and their plant spirits will help bring calm. Picking their flowers or leaves and placing them in your house is a lovely way to bring more of their spirits inside. Of course you can purchase teas or oils and these will help but a close connection to the actual plant brings a greater intensity of action.

I hope you can use some of these techniques to help bring a greater sense of calm to your life and lessen the stress. Just remember to work on ways to decrease the stress to begin with rather than just managing the effects of stress.

Published by drcarolhead

Dr. Carol Head is an General Practitioner with over 30 years experience in General Practice and Aboriginal health services. She has a keen interest in holistic medicine and combines her medical knowledge with her passion for writing. She is particularly interested in the body's ability to heal itself and has published two books: "Holistic Medicine" and "Tools for Transformation".

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