The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the two parts of what’s known as our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling bodily functions that we don’t do consciously such as breath, digestion, and our heartbeat. While the sympathetic nervous system is like a gas pedal that activates the stress response in times of danger, the parasympathetic nervous system is our body’s brake system. We can handle our stress better when we put practices into place which activate our parasympathetic nervous system (which is sometimes called the “rest and digest” nervous system). Here are some simple practices to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system so that our bodies and minds can cope with stress in more sustainable ways.
When our breath is shallow and fast, we’re most likely in “fight or flight” mode. We can pause this by consciously turning our attention to the breath. Use diaphragmatic breathing by taking deep inhales into the belly, and slow, relaxing exhales. This helps us enter a state of lowered stress and increased relaxation.
Yoga, or any movement where you’re mindfully connecting movement and breath, will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and combat stress. Yoga has many stress reduction benefits and its meditative movements combined with focusing on the breath will put your mind and body at ease.
When we get sweaty and active, our bodies send more blood and oxygen throughout our system. Our bodily functions, such as digestion and relaxation response, improve when we start the cool-down process.
Mindfulness simply involves being present in the moment and engaging the senses. You can engage mindfulness practices anytime — when you’re doing the dishes, walking, or talking with friends. When we live the moment, focus on the breath and our present experiences, and stop worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, our bodies and mind relax.
Prayer and Meditation
Prayer and meditation can help us slow our thoughts and help us to stop focusing on our source of stress. Like mindfulness training, these practices can help place us in the present moment and allow us to have better cognitive control of our emotions.
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