Our brain is an amazing 3 pound mass of matter that is responsible for movement, sensation, emotional regulation, behaviour, and our survival. Our nervous system is made up of a central nervous system (our brain and spinal cord) and a peripheral nervous system (nerves that run throughout the body). Your peripheral nervous system is further divided into the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system regulates movements that we have conscious control over, like when we want to pick up a glass of water to drink. The autonomic nervous system regulates activities in our bodies that seem to happen automatically, that is without any conscious effort. The Autonomic nervous system helps regulate our digestion, urination, reproduction, circulation, and our heart and respiratory rates. The focus of this article will be on the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches: Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). These two branches of the autonomic nervous system are complete opposites of each other. The PNS facilitates a rest and digest state, while the SNS facilitates a fight or flight state.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
When we are in a state or fear, anger or stress we activate the SNS to help us deal with the situation. The SNS will shunt blood flow and vital resources away from digestion and reproduction towards our muscles and heart so we have the capacity to run or fight, increase blood sugars to supply fuel for our working muscles, increase our heart rate and respiratory rate to supply more oxygen, and inhibit gland secretions to conserve energy. This is how long term stress can cause increased blood sugars, high blood pressure, digestive concerns, infertility, elevated heart rate and palpitations.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The PNS, on the other hand, facilitates a rest and digest state that allows us to be calm, sleep soundly and digest our food properly. The PNS enhances digestive function by releasing digestive enzymes and promoting the movement of food through our intestines, slows our heart and respiratory rates, and ensures normal function of our reproductive system. As you may have guessed, it is optimal for us to be in the PNS state in order to heal and be healthy, so lets look at how we can maintain a PNS state in our everyday lives.
How to Balance your Nervous System
The SNS is often triggered by our thoughts, either worrying about future situations or dwelling on past experiences. For example, when you are worried about an upcoming deadline you trigger your SNS and begin to experience sensations of anxiety. Also, if you dwell on a situation when someone “did you wrong” in the past, you experience anger and possibly resentment which will also stimulate the SNS. If the SNS is rooted in our thoughts, what is the PNS rooted in?
The PNS is rooted in body sensation and present awareness, it is best activated in the absence of thought. Activities that help to reduce the “hamsterwheel” thought process will help you switch out of a SNS state and into a PNS state. These activities include meditation, mindfulness practices, yoga, deep breathing, exercise, being in nature and many relaxing therapies such as massage, craniosacral therapy and acupuncture. This is also why these activities and therapies are so crucial in supporting the healing process of many disease states.
To help train your autonomic nervous system to easily switch into a PNS state, try incorporating one or more of the following exercises into your daily routine:
Meditation: There are various forms of meditation available to try, these include Yoga Nidra, Vipassana Meditation, visualization techniques, breath awareness and body scanning. If you are new to meditation, you can try the Calm or Headspace apps for guided support and you can start with just 5 minutes a day and work your way up. Starting a meditation practice in the mornings will set the tone for a calm, peaceful and productive day.
Exercise: Exercise is a great way to shake stress out of the body and release feel-good endorphins to promote a happier and more fulfilling life. Your mind and body will thank you whether you choose to jog, walk, hike, cycle, do yoga or hit the gym. Cardio exercise will make your heart stronger, give your cells more oxygen and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases. Exercise also helps turn your thoughts down and brings your focus to your body which can help facilitate more body awareness. Aim for at least 30 mins of cardio exercise 3 times per week for best results.
Nature Therapy: Nature therapy has been studied extensively in Japan as the Shinrin-Yoku practice. A few benefits that have been identified by simply being in nature include reduced blood pressure, improved mood, reduced stress, increased energy and improved sleep. Aim for a 10-20 minute walk outside daily in a local park or along the water or tree-lined street. We are so blessed to live in beautiful British Columbia where there are still lush forests within a 30-60 min drive, so try to get out of the city and into the forest once per week to get a good dose of Nature Therapy.
Deep Breathing Exercises: The breath is a powerful tool that can train your autonomic nervous system to shift into a PNS state. Because breathing is under both somatic (conscious) and autonomic (subconscious) control, it is an important bridge between these two branches of our nervous system. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, try focusing on your breath and follow a 4-7-8 breath pattern - inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. This breathing exercise naturally calms the nervous system and can be used during stressful situations and to help you fall asleep if you experience a racing mind at night. Check out my article on Research-based Benefits of Breathwork for more info.
Calming Tea: Herbs are powerful allies to help reduce stress and anxiety. Herbs help balance your stress response and can directly turn down the SNS state by supporting your body’s own production of GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps reduce SNS activation). Some wonderful calming herbs include chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm, lavender and valerian. Check out my page on Medicine Making to learn how to make your own medicinal tea.
In this Sympathetic driven world we are living in, it is so important to balance your nervous system and practice entering the PNS state so you can heal and live a more peaceful and fulfilling life.