Tips for Activating Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

Our nervous systems are incredibly intricate, maintaining a balance in them is crucial. Let’s take a simplified approach to comprehend the role of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Then, let’s talk about how to activate it!


The Peripheral Nervous System lives outside of the brain and spinal cord and consists of two parts: the Somatic Nervous System (controls conscious movements) and the Autonomic Nervous System (regulates visceral organs and unconscious activity). It’s beneficial to associate the term “Autonomic” with “automatic.” The Autonomic Nervous System manages bodily functions, slowing them down or speeding them up to keep us alive. The two branches responsible for this are the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.

Most of us are familiar with the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), often known as “fight, flight, or freeze.” It prepares us to respond to dangerous or stressful situations. Not you may not be trying to outrun lions on a daily basis, but what about your heart rate increasing when you realize you’re late for an important meeting? Yep, that’s your SNS at work. When our SNS is active, our pupils dilate, our heart rate and breathing quicken, and saliva production, digestion, and urination are all inhibited. At its core, the SNS is preparing us to take action and get to safety, and if we were being chased by a lion, stopping to eat or urinate would not be useful. 

Its counterpart, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), dubbed “rest and digest,” tends to receive a lot less attention. But it is just as important! It works to slow the heart rate and promote healthy digestion.


If the Autonomic Nervous System is designed to be automatic, you may be wondering why you need to be concerned about it at all. The answer lies in maintaining a balance between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. Imbalances can occur due to various factors, leading to physical health issues, emotional responses, and altered reactions to stimuli.

The most common imbalance is an overactive SNS and an underactive PNS, also known as “Sympathetic Overdrive.” If you are looking for a deep dive on the signs and symptoms of Sympathetic Overdrive, we gave it its very own blog here.


So what happens if you realize you’re staying too alert too often? Here are a few body hacks to engage those Parasympathetics…

  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Engage in deep, diaphragmatic breathing to signal to your body that it’s time to relax. Focus on long exhales to activate the PNS.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Incorporate mindfulness practices or meditation into your routine. Even short sessions can have a positive impact on activating the PNS.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Practice progressive muscle relaxation to release tension in the body and promote a state of calm. Tense and then relax one muscle group at a time, moving from head to toe or vice-versa.
  • Nature Walks: Spend time in nature. Walking in green spaces can have a soothing effect on the nervous system.
  • Get a Massage: Ever hear your stomach gurgle during a relaxing massage? That’s a sign that your Parasympathetics have kicked on! Let your LMT know one of your goals is to calm your nervous system. We can adjust our techniques accordingly.
  • Get an Adjustment: Your PNS nerve roots are near the top and bottom of the spine (the occiput and the sacrum). If either of these areas is fixated, you may have trouble getting your PNS to engage. Warning! You may feel the desire to nap after your adjustment. We recommend planning for that and taking the nap.
  • Get Acupuncture: Acupuncture can have the same calming effects as massage therapy.


What works for one person may not work for another depending on life demands, the level of imbalance, and personal preferences. The internet is riddled with simplified “answers” such as meditation, yoga, journaling, coloring, and exercise. Here’s the thing. Those answers can work, and they’re great when you’re close to or in maintenance, or if your lifestyle has recently done a 180 to allow for the time. But we recognize that at the more extreme ends of sympathetic overdrive, schedules are often overloaded schedules with never-ending todo lists and responsibilities. In these situations, the idea of making time for 30min of yoga a day is laughable, and even slowing down to try to meditate for 5min a day  can actually increase stress. So when you look to rebuild balance it’s essential to choose practices that suit your lifestyle- not where you want to be, but where you are right now.

  • Prioritize Self-Care: Easier said than done, right? But remember that if you don’t find a way to slow down your body, it will eventually force you to stop… and timing and methods are usually super inconvenient! Aim to identify 1-2 aspects of your life that keep you in that “fight or flight” state, and try to break them up with “mini” parasympathetic breaks. 
  • Set Realistic Goals: Instead of overwhelming yourself with extensive self-care practices, start with small, manageable goals. Even 45-60sec meditation or deep breathing breaks can be extremely helpful! Gradually build up to more comprehensive routines. 
  • Celebrate Your Wins: When it feels like you’re drowning, giving yourself credit (even for the little things!) can help keep you on track to break the cycle. It can be a marathon, not a sprint. 
  • Professional Support: If stress levels are severe, consider seeking professional help. Counseling, hypnotherapy, chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture can all help!

Understanding and actively engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System is crucial for overall well-being. By incorporating these strategies into your daily life, you can foster balance and resilience in the face of life’s demands. You’ve got this!