We might never have heard of our parasympathetic nervous system. But by understanding what it is and does, we can learn how to use it to bring our levels of anxiety down in a physical way.
What Is Our Parasympathetic Nervous System?
Before we start to understand how our parasympathetic nervous system works, we need to know what it is.
Our nervous system receives, interprets and transmits signals to and from different parts of our body. It’s made up of our spinal cord, brain, nerves, ganglia (a group of nerve cells), receptor organs, and transmitter organs.
Parts of our nervous system are ‘autonomic’. This means that we don’t consciously prompt our nervous system to do or control certain things. For example, our autonomic nervous system regulates our blood pressure.
Other parts of our nervous system are ‘somatic’ or voluntary. This means that we have to consciously think about them. For example, we consciously decide to walk. It doesn’t happen automatically.
Where Does Our Parasympathetic Nervous System Fit In?
When we talk about our nervous system, we often look at it as a whole. Breaking it into smaller parts, helps us to look at the unique effects each part has on our body.
Our nervous system can be split into our Central Nervous System (CNS), and our Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The central nervous system is made up of our spinal cord and our brain. Our peripheral nervous system is split into our somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system can be further split into our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
What Does Our Parasympathetic Nervous System Do?
To understand our parasympathetic nervous system, it’s helpful to know a little bit about our sympathetic nervous system because they work opposite one another.
If we picture our nervous system as a car, our sympathetic nervous system would be the accelerator, and our parasympathetic nervous system would be the brakes. So to relate that to the body; our sympathetic nervous system stimulates actions and responses, and our parasympathetic nervous system inhibits them.
How Does This Relate To Anxiety?
Most of us have heard of ‘fight or flight’. When we’re faced with a ‘threat’, be it a grizzly bear or a phonecall, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated. It triggers a physical response that gives us the best possible chance of winning the fight or escaping.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of this. It’s in charge of ‘resting’ and ‘digesting’. Some of the things it does include stimulating our saliva, lowering our heartbeat, contracting our bladder, constricting our pupils and digesting our food.
Essentially, our sympathetic nervous system triggers our anxiety response, and once the threat has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system helps us to calm down again.
The Science Bit
Some of us find it helpful to understand the science of our responses.
When something triggers our anxiety, part of our brain called the ‘amygdala’ receives this trigger. It sends a distress signal to our hypothalamus (another bit of our brain). Our hypothalamus is the ‘command centre’. It’s in charge of communicating with the rest of the body.
Once our hypothalamus receives the ‘SOS’ message from our amygdala, it knows that we need to activate our sympathetic nervous system. It sends a message to our adrenal glands to let them know that we’re facing a threat. This prompts these glands to pump adrenaline into our bloodstream (which is why our adrenaline levels rise when we’re anxious!).
As adrenaline floods our body, we start to feel the physical symptoms of anxiety. Our heartbeat, blood pressure and pulse increase. We start to breath more quickly and our airways open so that we can take in more oxygen. Our senses sharpen and we begin to be more sensitive to light, sound and other sensory input. Glucose (sugar) and fat are released from temporary storage, providing nutrients to our muscles as they prepare to fight, to run away.
All of this can happen so quickly that we might not even have processed the threat before it kicks in.
When The Threat Doesn’t Pass
Sometimes, our anxiety response needs to keep going for a while. To make this happen, our hypothalamus (the control centre bit of our brain) hormones which prompt our adrenal glands to release another hormone called cortisol. Cortisol keeps our body on ‘high alert’. Our body stays in a ‘high alert’ state until our cortisol levels drop again.
Once our cortisol levels drop, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in which starts to dampen our stress response. It releases hormones to relax our mind and body putting it into ‘rest and digest’ mode. Our heartbeat slows, and breathing settles down again.
How Does Our Parasympathetic Nervous System Relate To Longer-Term Anxiety?
When something triggers our anxiety, the way our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems respond is a normal and vital biological response. We all have a similar response; it keeps us safe.
For those of us with anxiety, our systematic nervous system is repeatedly triggered over a longer period of time. The danger doesn’t pass in the way that a specific trigger, such as coming face-to-face with a lion, might.
Because the danger doesn’t pass, our cortisol levels remain high. This means that our parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t kick in and our anxiety-response is maintained.
Chronic levels of stress or anxiety can lead to some physical problems. This could include damage to blood vessels, constant fatigue, headaches, and digestive problems.
How Can We Use Our Parasympathetic Nervous System?
Activating our parasympathetic nervous system can improve our mood, lower our heart rate and blood pressure, strengthen our immune system, and allow us to feel more relaxed.
When our body goes a little off-kilter and our anxiety levels remain high, we can tap into our parasympathetic nervous system externally, to bring our stress levels back down.
Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paired Muscle Relaxation, Paced Breathing (TIPP)
‘TIPP’ is a skill often taught in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). It stands for ‘Temperature, Intense exercise, Paired muscle relaxation, Paced breathing’. It’s a physical way of reducing our levels of anxiety using our parasympathetic nervous system.
T – Temperature. By altering our temperature, we can slow our heart rate down. This activates our parasympathetic nervous system. One way to alter our temperature is by holding our breath and putting our face in cold water for three seconds or so. If we’re not a fan of the face-dunk, we could wrap an ice pack in a tea towel, and hold it against our eyes, cheek or forehead
I – Intense Exercise. Exercise isn’t suitable for everyone. But if we’re able to do it, it can deepen and slow our breathing which helps to release muscle tension bringing a feeling of calm. For exercise to class as ‘intense’, we need to get our heart rate going. There are lots of ways we could do this; run up and down the stairs, follow a YouTube exercise video, do jumping jacks, or go for a run around the block.
P – Paired Muscle Relaxation. This is where we work through sets of muscles, one at a time, tensing them as we breathe in, and relaxing them as we breathe out. Often it’s helpful to work up our body by starting at our feet by clenching our toes, and working all the way up our body until we reach our eyes.
P – Paced Breathing. This can help us to slow our breathing down. There are lots of ways that we can pace our breathing. We could sit comfortably and count our breathing in and out. Alternatively, we might like to try things like yoga, deep abdominal breathing, tai chi, mindfulness, and meditation. If we’re struggling an app such as ‘fear tools’ can be helpful, because it gives us a visual pattern to follow.
Other Ways We Can Kick-Start Our Parasympathetic Nervous System
Relaxation: Various things can help us to relax. We’re all different and might find some things relaxing that others find stressful. We could try things like having a massage, focusing on soothing words, visualising calming scenes, stroking a pet, having a bubble bath, or repeating prayer or affirmations.
Time in Nature: Grounding ourselves in nature, and reconnecting with the earth have been shown to help us regulate our hormone and nervous systems. Time in nature can shift our nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic.
Pleasure: Doing things we enjoy can decrease the levels of cortisol in our bloodstream. This triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, reducing our levels of anxiety.
Using These Tools In Practice
It can take practice to use these skills when our anxiety is high and to use them effectively. Sometimes we need to tweak or adjust the skills we learn until they work for us. For example, with temperature, we might not like putting our face in cold water, and might not own a freezer so can’t freeze ice packs. Instead, we might use instant ice packs, or dunk an old t-shirt in cold water (they’re less scratchy than a flannel).
The good news is, that it doesn’t matter how anxious we are or how ‘strong’ we’re feeling. By reducing our anxiety in a physical way, instead of trying to reason with it or think our way around it, these tools should always work to reduce our anxiety.
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