Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System in Times of Stress

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I'm Alissa!

I help women who have also been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis make specific and personalized diet, lifestyle & subconscious changes so that they can begin to heal their body, reduce disease symptoms, and return to a life they love.

hey there,

This past month has been a bit of a doozy, to say the least. Coronavirus is taking over. Maybe not the illness itself in all places, but the effects of it for sure. Staying home, businesses closed, limited interaction, the world as we knew it is drastically different now. And this can bring an intense feeling of anxiety, overwhelm, fear among other things.

Being in the sympathetic (fight-flight-freeze) mode chronically can have significant impacts on our health and many of us were existing in this state prior to Coronavirus! If you’re feeling like this could be you, these tips are going to be helpful.

Parasympathetic vs Sympathetic

Both the parasympathetic and sympathetic are part of the autonomic nervous system which is a part of the peripheral nervous system. They have few similarities, but mostly differences. They both work with each other to keep the body in homeostasis. The sympathetic nervous system’s main purpose is to activate bodily systems during times of stress. It will increase heart rate, blood pressure and respiration to be able to fight or run from the stressor. It will also release glucose from the liver to have a quick source of energy.

The parasympathetic nervous systems goal is to activate rest and digest mode. The parasympathetic works to decrease heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. It will also stimulate digestion and salivation.

Essentially, the sympathetic nervous system is meant to speed someone up, while the parasympathetic is meant to slow us down.

Sympathetic Dominance

As we just learned, the sympathetic nervous system is meant to activate our fight or flight mode. Ancestrally speaking, it is meant to help us fight a lion, or run away from it. However, it doesn’t distinguish stressors. So when we’re upset about being laid off from work, watching the news or just had a fight with our significant other, it still gets activated. Unfortunately, many of us live in a stressed out state much of the time. Which means the sympathetic nervous system is activated more often than the parasympathetic. This can lead to significant health issues. Some are:

  • Digestive issues: gas, bloating, pain, incomplete digestion, constipation, etc.
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Being constantly tired, or wired and tired
  • Anxiety
  • Shallow breathing
  • Poor quality sleep

Sounds like many of us, right?

With all of our specific stressors, and now add what is going on in the entire world, we have to actively think about focusing on activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system instead.

Parasympathetic Activation

In this age of stress surrounding us constantly, we need to be focusing on activating the parasympathetic mode as much as possible. Yes, there are some who have mastered this, but they’re in a minority I believe. Thankfully, there are many ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Some are:

  • Deep breathing- will increase vagal tone and help to stimulate digestion
  • Meditation – can improve heart rate variability
  • Massage – can improve heart rate variability
  • Being in nature – only 20 minutes of being in nature will decrease stress markers
  • Digital breaks – watching the news/reading social media can increase our sympathetic system response
  • Yawning – can activate the parasympathetic, similar to breathing
  • Gum chewing – will stimulate digestion
  • Consistent exercise- will improve vagal tone and heart rate variability

These are only a few of the things that will activate the parasympathetic system. Anything that requires you to slow down, be mindful and breathe, will help.

More than ever, we need to be mindful about how we are spending our time. Are we focusing on helpful, health promoting activities? Are we mindlessly watching the news or scrolling insta? Don’t get me wrong, scrolling insta CAN be useful, if you’ve curated your feed for helpful things (half of mine is now cats, for example). But if you’re on there and getting stressed about things you’re seeing, it may not be so good.

One of my clients was struggling with stress and asked for a personal checklist she could do each evening. That idea might be helpful for you to draw awareness to how you’re spending your time. It included:

  • How am I feeling emotionally in this moment?
  • How does my body feel?
  • How am I breathing in this moment?
  • How many times did I eat today?
    • Was that enough?
  • Did I drink enough water?
    • Was that enough?
  • Did I take breaks throughout the day?
  • What was the best part about the day?
  • What could have gone better?
  • What will I bring into tomorrow?

This would be a 5 minute exercise to bring attention and awareness to your day and how it was for you. If you try it, let me know!!

I urge you to get curious about how you’re spending your time throughout the day, then adjust accordingly.

How are you managing stress? Are you experiencing trouble? Doing great? Let me know in the comments below!

If you’re feeling like you need extra help with anxiety, overwhelm and stress, I’ve launched a 4 week program that might be helpful for you! Check it out here.

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