Learning how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is your secret weapon for quickly and easily inducing a sense of calm and relaxation throughout the mind and body. It allows you to effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress, while simultaneously increasing your mood, immune system, and even lowering your blood pressure.
What Is The Parasympathetic Nervous System?
The parasympathetic nervous system is one of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions. It works in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, helping to maintain a balance in the autonomic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system because it promotes activities that occur when the body is at rest, such as digestion, energy conservation, and relaxation. Its main functions include slowing the heart rate, stimulating digestion, promoting salivation, constricting the pupils, and stimulating the release of digestive enzymes.
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with a state of rest, relaxation, and recovery. It counteracts the “fight or flight” response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, helping to maintain overall physiological balance in the body. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to regulate various bodily functions and maintain homeostasis.
How to Activate The Parasympathetic Nervous System
From mindful breathing exercises to nature therapy, there are several powerful techniques you can use to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to reduce anxiety, ease stress and increase your mood and mental health.
Spend Time in Nature
Nature therapy, often referred to as “forest bathing” by the Japanese, offers a pathway to physiological relaxation. The method is simple—immerse yourself in nature. Forest bathing revolves around mindful, tranquil walks in the forest, allowing you to engage with your surroundings while activating all your senses.
This practice has been found to reduce cortisol levels and lower blood pressure, with as little as a 15-minute stroll needed to experience the benefits.
Breathwork is a great way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and unleash a cascade of benefits for your mental health. Through breathing exercises practices like deep diaphragmatic breathing or guided mindful breathing exercises, you can effectively stimulate the body’s rest-and-digest response. As the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, you will experience a profound sense of calm as it washes over the mind and body, counteracting the stress response.
The benefits extend beyond the immediate moment, with consistent breathwork being linked to reduced anxiety and enhanced emotional wellbeing. It becomes a valuable tool for managing stress, improving sleep and fostering mental resilience.
Get a Massage
Indulging in a soothing massage is an act of self-care that can work wonders for your mental health and wellbeing. The magic lies in its ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. As hands knead away tension, your body receives a signal to unwind, triggering a cascade of calming responses.
The gentle strokes and rhythmic movements not only ease physical knots but also coax your mind into a state of tranquility. Stress and anxiety take a backseat as the parasympathetic nervous system steps up, promoting relaxation and mental clarity. Regular massages have been linked to reduced levels of stress hormones and an uplifted mood.
Listen To Relaxation Music
Music has the incredible ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a state of relaxation for the mind. When you tune in to soothing melodies, the effects ripple through your body, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and even your respiration rate.
What makes a difference is the specific frequency of the music you’re listening too. Research suggests that frequencies like 432 Hz offer more benefits compared to the more common 440 Hz tuning found in modern music. So, consider the frequency of your tunes as a mindful choice, paving the way for a more calming and harmonious experience for both your body and mind.
And keep it up! Research shows that regular doses of music have been shown to reduce cortisol levels, lower anxiety, and elevate your mood.
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Take a Warm Bath
Research indicates that soaking in 102°F/38°C water can effectively halt the sympathetic nervous system, ushering in a soothing warmth for the body as the warm water activates your parasympathetic nervous system. You can enhance this experience with lavender Epsom salt, as they help relax tense muscles, increase magnesium levels and promote a boost of relaxation. Or you can add a couple drops of your favourite essential oils into the water and play some relaxation music to tackle several parasympathetic nervous system techniques at once.
Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is like your own personal relaxation switch; learning how to activate your vagus nerve can do wonders for your mental health and wellbeing.
The vagus nerve is this incredible pathway that connects your brain to various organs, including your heart and gut. When you stimulate it, you’re essentially signaling your body to hit the brakes on stress and slide into the soothing embrace of the parasympathetic nervous system.
There are a few simple techniques that can stimulate your vagus nerve, such as deep, rhythmic breathing is one of them and vagus nerve stimulation devices.
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When humming, you’re sending a soothing message to your nervous system, while also activating your vagus nerve, a key player in the parasympathetic nervous system. As the vibrations ripple through your vocal cords, humming signals to your brain that it’s time to ease up on the stress hormones and embrace a more relaxed state.
As you hum, pay attention to the subtle sensations in your body. Feel the vibrations in your chest, your throat, and even your head. It’s like a gentle massage from the inside, a moment of self-care that requires nothing more than your own breath and vocal cords.
Speaking of essential oils, aromatherapy has the potential to establish balance in the nervous system and alleviate anxiety, as suggested by research. Scents like bergamot and lavender are popular essential oils for anxiety, but there are many more to explore, such as valerian, patchouli, marjoram, and rose.
By inhaling the aroma of essential oils, diffusing them, or adding them into your bath, you can experience a boost of relaxing effects as your parasympathetic nervous system goes to work.
Get Some Sun
Basking in the warmth of the sun has the incredible ability to soothe your nerves, as the sunshine increases several neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Sunlight exposure also plays a pivotal role in regulating the circadian rhythm by fostering melatonin production and reducing cortisol levels.
Cloudy day? Take advantage of a light therapy lamp that provides similar benefits of the sun, without ever having to step foot outside.
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Stimulate Your Third Eye
A popular and incredibly easy ancient practice that activates your parasympathetic nervous system involves stimulating your third eye, the spot nestled between your eyebrows.
To stimulate your third eye, you can try gently tapping on the area, activating your pineal and pituitary glands by sending light waves of vibration. You can also incorporate regular tapping exercises into your daily routine to activate many more areas for a boost to your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health.
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Get Sweaty in a Sauna
Beyond the soothing heat and comforting ambiance, saunas have a remarkable ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, becoming a haven for mental health and wellbeing.
As you settle into the sauna or a sauna blanket, the temperature begins to rise, and your body responds by releasing endorphins, those magical feel-good hormones. The heat prompts your heart rate to increase slightly, simulating a mild cardiovascular workout without breaking a sweat. Simultaneously, your blood vessels dilate, improving circulation and ensuring that oxygen-rich blood flows freely to every nook and cranny of your body.
Sauna sessions also provide the perfect environment for your parasympathetic nervous system to activate. As your body absorbs the radiant heat, your muscles relax, tension melts away, and the worries of the day start to evaporate like steam. The sauna experience becomes a sanctuary for stress reduction, allowing your mind to unwind as your body follows suit.
Regular sauna use has been associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. The release of endorphins acts as a natural mood booster, creating a euphoric sensation that lingers long after you step out of the sauna. Additionally, the improved circulation facilitates nutrient delivery to the brain, supporting cognitive function and mental clarity.
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Kick off your shoes and feel the world beneath your feet to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.When you walk barefoot, especially on natural surfaces like grass, sand, or even the cool embrace of hardwood floors, the ground triggers nerve endings in your feet, sending signals to your brain and setting off a delightful cascade of parasympathetic responses. As your body tunes in to the grounded connection, your stress and anxiety starts to melt away.
Walking barefoot has also been linked to lower cortisol levels, promoting an overall sense of relaxation and calmness. The sensory experience of going barefoot also acts like a mini-meditation for your feet, offering mindfulness benefits as you are encouraged to be present and attuned to the sensations around you. As you navigate the different textures and temperatures, your mind becomes grounded in the moment, providing a natural escape from stress and anxiety.
Touch Your Lips
Your lips have parasympathetic fibers that respond to gentle stimulation, such as running your fingers over them. There’s also evidence supporting the idea that our mouths play a role in influencing our mood. So, the next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, experiment with this simple touch technique for an effective mood boost.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation invites you to be present, right here, right now. As you settle into a comfortable position – maybe on a cushion, a chair, or even the floor – you’re laying the groundwork for a profound shift in your nervous system. The magic begins as you focus on your breath, the steady inhale and exhale that keeps you tethered to the present moment. With each breath, you’re signaling to your body that it’s time to switch gears. The parasympathetic nervous system gets activated, and as your breath deepens, your heart rate slows, and the stress hormones decrease.
The regular practice of mindfulness meditation has been linked to decreased levels of cortisol. Mindfulness meditation is also key for building emotional resilience. As you sit with your thoughts, allowing them to come and go like passing clouds, you’re building a bridge to a healthier relationship with your emotions. It’s not about avoiding or suppressing; it’s about acknowledging and observing without judgment.
Let Out a Yawn
Ah, the humble yawn – that involuntary, wide-mouthed stretch that often gets a bad rap as a sign of boredom. But what if I told you that yawning is not just a sleepy reflex; it’s a secret weapon for activating your parasympathetic nervous system? Let’s explore the surprising benefits of this often-overlooked act of self-care.
Yawning is like a gentle nudge from your body, inviting you to slow down and take a moment for yourself. When you yawn, you’re signaling to your parasympathetic nervous system that it’s time to hit the relaxation button, flooding you with a sense of calm and relaxation.
Repeat a Mantra
Not only do mantras have the power to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, but they also bring a host of mental health benefits to the table.
When you repeat a mantra, the vibrations of these sacred sounds create a calming effect on your nervous system. As you repeat your chosen mantra, whether silently or aloud, the parasympathetic nervous system responds by slowing your heart rate, easing tension, and calming anxiety and stress.
It’s important to choose a mantra that resonates with you, as this practice is a deeply personal experience. It could be a single word, a phrase, or even a sound that holds special meaning. It could be “peace,” “love,” or the timeless “Om,” which has a frequency of 432 Hz and is known to slow down the nervous system and calm the mind.
Stretch It Out
As you reach, bend, and breathe, your muscles release tension, and your heart rate slows down, signaling to your body that it’s time to unwind as you activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The physical act of elongating your muscles also sends a message to your brain to dial down the production of stress hormones. It also releases endorphins, your feel-good brain chemicals, leaving you feel positive and relaxed.
Gratitude is a powerful calming tool that, when used with intention, has the ability to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. And it’s as simple as taking a moment each day to reflect on the things you’re thankful for. It could be the warmth of sunshine on your face, the comforting aroma of coffee in the morning, or the support of a friend during a tough time.
As you cultivate this gratitude practice, pay attention to the subtle shifts in your body. You might feel a lightness in your chest, a softening of your shoulders, or perhaps a smile playing on your lips. These physical sensations are your body’s way of saying, “Thank you for this moment of peace.”
Gratitude is also a mood booster. When you focus on the positive aspects of your life, even during challenging times, you’re rewiring your brain to find joy in the midst of adversity. It’s like giving your mental landscape a splash of vibrant colors.
Gratitude is also a powerful stress reliever. As you shift your focus from what’s lacking to what you’re grateful for, your body responds by dialing down the stress response. It’s a subtle yet profound way to create a buffer against the challenges life throws your way.
Whether through mindful breathing, a soothing touch or a moment of gratitude, you hold the power to activate your parasympathetic nervous system for anxiety relief and an overall better mental health. So, give these parasympathetic nervous system techniques a try, find the ones that you like best. These techniques will be your secret weapon when times get tough or emotions get high.