Picture this: Your heart races, you feel out of control, fear courses through your veins, and the off-switch feels impossible and out of reach. This scenario is an example of what it feels like when we enter our fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn response. And unfortunately, we can encounter this state several times a day. Whether fighting with a loved one, someone cutting you off in traffic or even experiencing a disgruntled customer service agent. Yet, thankfully, you can learn how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and soothe your mind-body to feel more in control of your day-to-day.
What Is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
When you experience a stressful situation like encountering a bear on a hike, your eyes and ears or both send a signal to your amygdala (the area that controls emotional processing), which then alerts the hypothalamus. Interestingly, the hypothalamus acts like a data hub that communicates and receives information from the autonomic nervous system, composed of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system lights a fire within you, releasing cortisol and other hormones, giving you the energy to act and survive. After the intensity dissipates, your parasympathetic nervous system and stress management kick in, extinguishing the fire and providing you with a wave of tranquility, relaxation, and calmness to restore the aftereffects.
However, while our stress response protects us from threats, our sympathetic nervous system can get confused, alerting us to react to less harmless yet stressful encounters like confrontations, job interviews, or public speaking. Therefore, it’s vital to learn how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system with coping mechanisms to release the built-up cortisol and bring your body back to a state of peace.
How to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
1. Cold plunge
By now, you may have heard or come across the infamous Wim Hof, aka The Iceman. If not, he’s an extreme athlete and motivational speaker known for creating a method that leads to a more balanced nervous system, stronger immunity, improved cognition, and reduced stress levels. The three pillars include;
- Breathwork involving inhalation, exhalation, and prolonged breath holds (follow this beginner tutorial)
- Workout (choose your preferred body movement)
- Cold exposure (take a 2-minute cold shower to start and increase your time as you progress)
Follow these pillars and their steps methodically, and you’ll notice a happier and more relaxed self.
The idea of having thin needles placed into specific parts of your body may alarm you, but not to worry, acupuncture can actually unblock you in a “fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn state”. In fact, studies indicate that this ancient practice triggers the release of oxytocin, activating our parasympathetic nervous system and simultaneously sending neural signals to the brain to release endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters. So, give it a go and allow a skilled acupuncturist to align and release energy to uplift your spirits.
3. Nature therapy
Meditation is always a popular go-to to alleviate stress. But maybe meditation isn’t your thing. If not, connecting to nature is one of the best meditation alternatives for those who dislike meditating. Indeed, you can go for a walk, soak up the sunshine vitamin D, stare at a flower and mindfully concentrate on its design, or frolic in a forest. Simply immersing yourself in the natural world can induce a relaxation response and make you feel at peace.
4. Creative expression
Unfortunately, as humans, we are bombarded by multiple voices: the voice of our inner critic, intuition, and inner child. Yet, one of the best ways to learn how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is by addressing the trauma of these voices and nurturing them through creative expression. For example, painting, sculpting, drawing, or even coloring are stress-relieving hobbies that allow you to reduce anxiety, manage difficult emotions, and heal painful memories. So, connect to your inner child in an artistic way aligned with your soul.
5. Cuddle/Laugh/Receive support
This tip includes the trifecta of happy hormones and, of course, a well-balanced nervous system. Watching a funny show with a friend, sharing a giggle, hugging your loved one, snuggling up with your furbaby, or surrounding yourself in a loving field of support can lower your stress response and activate those feel-good emotions that turn the bluest of days to a shade brighter.
6. Improved gut health
You might find it surprising to see gut health on this list; however, our gut is akin to our second brain. Nourishing it with the best prebiotic and probiotic enriched foods for proper digestion can effectively balance your gut flora and improve your emotional and mental well-being. In fact, research highlights the vital role that healthy gut bacteria play in our cognitive processes. Therefore, prioritize foods like kimchi, yogurt, tofu, sauerkraut, and ginger, among others, to support your precious “second brain.”
7. Inner dialogue exercises
When you find yourself in a fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn state, spend time getting to know what triggered the response. For example, kindly and compassionately embrace yourself with love, patience, and reflection to understand the root cause of your stress, trauma, or panic. You can improve and change your inner dialogue to calm the stress response by;
- Reciting mantras or positive affirmations
- Practicing gratitude to shift your mindset
- Learning how to challenge intrusive thoughts
- Journaling to understand your triggers and expand awareness
- Completing a butterfly hug and saying, “I am safe and loved”
8. Non sleep deep rest
Developed by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a well-known neuroscientist, non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a method that combines controlled breathing and body scanning to place you in a hypnotic state without falling asleep. In this dream-like state, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes activated, your focus is enhanced, and you feel at ease. Additionally, this state engages your theta brain waves, increasing your productivity and creativity. Multi-tasking for the win!
9. Mind-body connection practice
Thankfully, there are many ways to activate your mind-body connection to release trauma and engage your soothing response to combat stress. A few fan favorites are;
- Have you ever noticed how a dog shakes immediately after experiencing a stressful response? Well, they have a knee-jerk reaction to activate their parasympathetic nervous system to signal the brain to relax. And we can do the same. Simply shake or dance to release your stress.
- Yoga combines several techniques to release tension and improve our fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn response (check out this post about yoga poses specifically designed for stress relief). For example, the asanas (movements) with the pranayamas (breathing techniques) work together to create a stronger mind-body connection and activate your relaxation response.
- Following a daily stretching routine for rest and recovery can provide similar benefits to mindfulness. It allows you to release the accumulated stress and tension in your body while feeling relaxed and happy.
- The ancient practice Qigong, which originated in China, is another soothing technique for adults who are stressed and anxious that aligns your energy and puts you in natural harmony mind-body-and-spirit.
10. Vagus nerve stimulation
While every tool on the list will activate vagus nerve stimulation, the key cranial nerve responsible for counteracting your stress response, there are other vagus nerve exercises for better mental health. For instance, singing, repeating the “OM” phrase in a guided meditation, or humming are examples of voice play that disengage your fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn response. Additionally, listen to certain frequencies like 432 or 528 Hz while driving, after arguing or encountering any stressful situation to feel more balanced.
Learning how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is your secret weapon and insurance plan for regaining control during anxious and stressful states. Remember, you have the power to prioritize coping mechanisms to improve your well-being and to achieve calm and balance.
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