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…
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.
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!