The nervous system is incredibly complex. In fact, it can be so intimidating many of us give up altogether on trying to understand it. But what if we told you the key to improved well-being could lie in triggering certain nervous system responses? It’s true – the autonomic nervous system is comprised of two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
And for today’s post, we’re going to focus on how you can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and why it can be beneficial to your well-being.
Sympathetic vs. parasympathetic nervous system
As we mentioned, the autonomic nervous system is divided into two components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. They both perform different, but very important functions.
Understanding the sympathetic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response
The sympathetic nervous system is what’s responsible for what we know as the “fight-or-flight” response. This response is also called the stress response. It evolved as a survival mechanism. It’s our body’s way of telling us there’s a perceived threat and we need to take action: fight or flee.
The fight-or-flight response tells us to adapt to a threatening situation.
These distress signals can help the body produce the energy it needs to deal with a threat:
- Quickened breathing and heart rate
- Tense muscles
- High blood pressure and more blood flow to your organs.
- Expanding blood vessels to allow you to get more blood flow and oxygen
- Heightened senses
- A release of blood sugar and fats from the body’s stores to be used for energy
- Cortisol levels (the stress hormone) increase
But we can’t be in this state at all times or we enter what’s known as chronic stress. So, what about turning off or slowing down this process when a threat is no longer a threat and the danger has passed?
That’s where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in.
The parasympathetic nervous system and the rest and digest response
Instead of activating your stress response like the sympathetic nervous system, your parasympathetic nervous system is meant to act as a brake. It tells your body it’s okay to slow down, to take deep breaths, and to relax. This response allows your cortisol levels to fall. It tells your body to conserve energy, to slow the heart rate, and to increase intestinal and gland activity. It even relaxes the sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.
Essentially, all of your body’s functions that require the most energy and effort are slowed or stopped when the parasympathetic system kicks in. You can finally “rest and digest.”
The importance of a balanced nervous system
As you can imagine, constantly being in a state of rest and digest OR fight or flight can’t be good for the brain or body.
On the one hand, you could be in a state of chronic stress, which comes with a variety of consequences. Several diseases are associated with chronic stress.
This is largely due to the link between chronic stress and the immune system.
As one study puts it:
In a situation of chronic stress, the neuroimmune axis can be overstimulated and breaks down, thus causing neuroendocrine/immune imbalances that establish a state of chronic low-grade inflammation, a possible prelude to various illnesses .
Diseases whose development have been linked to both stress and inflammation include cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders.
The link between chronic stress and the negative effect this can have on the brain structure can’t be ignored. These structural changes can potentially cause the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dysfunctions commonly associated with chronic stress that may also increase vulnerability to psychiatric disorders.
On the other hand, if our sympathetic nervous system is NEVER triggered, we might not be equipped to adequately deal with threats. But the problem is for many of us, our sympathetic nervous system and stress response stays triggered for much longer or more often than it needs to be. Over time, this can lead to the problems we just covered, and an overall negative effect on your well-being.
Enlist your parasympathetic nervous system to help
Now for some good news: there are tools you can utilize to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system if it’s unbalanced. That means you can enjoy the benefits of the relaxation response, including lower blood pressure, improved digestion, increased blood flow to the body’s major muscles, improved mood and concentration, better sleep quality and less fatigue, and much more.
The parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve
No conversation about the parasympathetic nervous system is complete without mentioning the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest in the autonomic nervous system, and it extends to nearly every major system in the body. It’s also the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s why vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can be a great way to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to help you relax.
At Neuvana, we’re all about stimulating the vagus nerve to leverage how the brain, body, and nervous system work together. We also believe this doesn’t need to be invasive or complicated. So, we’re proud to offer Xen by Neuvana as a way to stimulate the vagus nerve from the comfort of your own home.
Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve sends messages to the brain to generate calming sensations in the body. In fact, VNS has been scientifically researched for decades for its power to improve wellness.
Some methods for doing this involve surgical implantation or other invasive measures. But with Xen by Neuvana, you have an accessible, easy way to stimulate the vagus nerve. All it takes is plugging in your Xen Headphones into the Xen handheld device that connects to your smartphone. Then, you can listen to your favorite music or sounds while the gentle electrical stimulation gets to work! Xen even syncs to your music library, Spotify®, Pandora®, and most other streaming apps.
Vagus nerve stimulation is one of the greatest ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. (By the way, we share more on the vagus nerve, including why it’s the key to well-being, in this post).
Looking to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system at any given time? Keep reading to add more options to your parasympathetic stimulation routine!
How to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system
Touch your lips
Did you know the lips have parasympathetic fibers running through them? Something as simple as gently running your finger over your lips can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, take one or two fingers and gently rub them back and forth on your lips. (Yes, it even works if you’re wearing a mask!) Focus on the sensations this creates and notice how the mind and body begin to relax.
Using calming imagery to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is an excellent tool for grounding yourself and relaxing when you need it most. Try this: Take a moment to imagine your favorite place. Visualize exactly what it looks like. Visualize how relaxed you look while you’re there. Next, notice every detail, every color, every shape in this space. As your mind focuses on these details rather than the current stress you’re experiencing, you’ll notice you naturally begin to calm down.
We discussed how the parasympathetic nervous system slows the breathing down. But if you intentionally focus on slowing your breathing, even during moments of stress or “fight-or-flight,” it can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system response. Practice taking slow deep breaths from the diaphragm. Place a hand on your stomach and if you notice it rises and falls as you breathe, this tells you you’re breathing from the diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breaths are more relaxing than the quick, shallow breaths associated with the stress response.
These are some of our favorite ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve. What tools do you use to calm down in stressful or anxious moments? Comment down below and let us know. Would you like to learn more about Xen by Neuvana and how it can help gently stimulate the vagus nerve? Click here to discover what they could do for you.