In our last post we discussed nervous system regulation and how it can impact your mental and emotional health. Now let’s cover how to support your nervous system and develop habits to cope before stressful situations occur.
How to Know your sympathetic nervous system is activated
If you pay close attention to your body you will become in tune with how you feel when you are calm and in control, and how you feel when you are stressed and not in control.
‘Once you have a general understanding of your body’s “baseline,” you can notice the small ways stress impacts you physically.’ (Elemental.com | If There Was Ever a Time to Activate Your Vagus Nerve, It Is Now – Four simple steps to return to a ‘rest and digest’ state; Ashley Abramson, Apr 10, 2020)
Catching this early increases the chances of being able to regulate your nervous system; which means to allow it to complete it’s response.
How to support your nervous system in completing its response
Once your automatic nervous system is activated to respond to a stressor, you want to support your body in completing it’s response. Part of that process is having awareness of what is going on and activating the parasympathetic nervous system to repair, recover and integrate the stressful experience.
There are a number of ways you can support your nervous system in completing it’s response.
One way is to practice deep breathing. Focusing on inhaling slowly and a steady exhalation, sends a signal to the parasympathetic nervous system that will calm you down.
Heat can also have a calming effect. When you have a sore muscle you apply heat (like a heating pad or warm cloths) because it soothes your pain. Likewise, a warm bath can be soothing and trigger a calm reaction within your body. A warm blanket or heating pad has also been shown to reduce anxiety.
Another method is applying pressure or weight on the body. ‘Weight provides the brain with proprioceptive input, which can produce a calming and organizing effect on the central nervous system.’ (www.healthline.com – 6 Ways to Give Your Nervous System a Break; Crystal Hoshaw, February 9, 2021) A weighted blanket or vest can provide pressure that is calming and is similar to the feeling of being hugged or held.
How to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system
There are things you can do to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system. The stronger this branch of the nervous system gets, the easier it is to trigger it to reduce stress when it arises.
There are other benefits to a strong parasympathetic nervous system such as decreased blood pressure, positive effect on mood and a stronger immune system.
Here are some activities that you can participate in to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system:
- Get adequate sleep
- Regular massages
- Cold exposure (like a cold plunge or just turning the water to cold for the last 30 seconds of your shower to start)
- Talk Therapy (with someone close to you or a professional)
Your parasympathetic nervous system is known as the mode when you ‘rest and digest’. The more time you spend in this mode the healthier you are, especially given that there is so much demand and stress in daily life activating your sympathetic nervous system. Incorporating these activities and other strategies to cope with stressful situations can help restore balance in your body.
The muscle you flex the most gets the strongest, so naturally, this will strengthen and activate your parasympathetic nervous system so that it is not overpowered by the sympathetic nervous system.
Identifying and working with your nervous system is something you can do on your own or together with a professional. But it does take your active and consistent participation.
If you are in therapy, knowing how to work with your nervous system means that the work you are doing in each session is more effective. So you are capitalizing on your time and financial investment and you get to see results in your physical health, emotional system, work life and relationships.
A small increase in awareness around this can go such a long way.