A Calm Nervous System for Stress Relief
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
A full guide to understanding your nervous system and its role in stress
Poor sleep. Low productivity in the workplace. Poor attention and focus. Easily irritated and annoyed with others.
What do these things have in common? High stress resulting in a poorly regulated nervous system.
That's right, our nervous system has a big role in our stress levels. Our energy and focus. Our productivity. And so much more.
A calm nervous system is the *key* to stress relief, good mood, and maximizing our true potential in life.
This full guide while help you:
-understand how the nervous system impacts us
-its role in stress,
-and how to have a calm nervous system.
A Calm Nervous System: Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System
First, let’s take some time to understand the nervous system. The central nervous system involves the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral division of the nervous system includes the autonomic and somatic nervous systems.
The autonomic nervous system, which is indicated in the stress response, is divided into two parts – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When activated, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response in the body. This is the body’s natural response to protecting itself from danger. This is an evolutionary danger response meant to protect us.
However, in modern-day society, the sympathetic nervous system can be activated in many situations that are not truly dangerous. This might include after a fight with a loved one, preparing to present in a big meeting, getting cut off in traffic, and other common daily situations.
Once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the body releases two hormones, epinephrine and cortisol. These hormones act to create a series of physiological changes in the body, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, faster respiration rates, and increased blood flow to the extremities.
When this response is activated, other body processes, such as digestive processes are put on hold to allow the body to use its energy to protect itself.
Overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system can negatively impact the body in many ways:
Cardiovascular: When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate increases, causing stronger contractions of the heart muscle overall. Because the amount of blood being pumped throughout the body increases, this can also increase blood pressure. According to research in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, chronic stress can increase the risk for many conditions, such as hypertension, stroke, and heart attack.
Immune system: When the sympathetic nervous system is activated chronically, glucocorticoids (hormones responsible for regulating the immune system and decreasing inflammation) are released more frequently. This can lead to the development of various physical conditions, metabolic disorders such as obesity, and immune disorders.
High stress has been consistently linked to immune system functioning issues.
Respiratory system: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system can result in changes in breathing, shortness of breath, and lung way constriction. This is especially exacerbated in people with existing respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis.
Digestive system: Research has consistently indicated a strong connection between the brain and gut. Due to the high number of neurons in the gut, frequent communication between the gut and the brain occurs.
Because chronic stress changes gut bacteria and stress also impacts how quickly food is digested, those experiencing chronic stress can experience uncomfortable digestive issues such as constipation, bloating, diarrhea, and cramping.
Because activation of this fight or flight response impacts the entire body, learning to manage stress by engaging the parasympathetic response more easily is a crucial part of stress relief and maximizing productivity.
Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System for a Calm Nervous System
While the sympathetic nervous system is thought to be like pressing the gas pedal in a car very forcefully, the parasympathetic nervous system is thought to be the brakes.
The parasympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as the rest and digest system that allows us to calm the body and return to natural processes, such as digestion.
Activation of this response helps calm down of the body by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing muscle tension, and returning breathing to a normal rate. The parasympathetic nervous system engages with the vagus nerve, which is implicated in a calm and relaxed state.
The parasympathetic nervous system is also involved in saliva and tear production, nerves in the stomach and bladder, and nerves and blood vessels related to male erection. This nervous system is responsible for making sure that the basic functions of the body are working in the way that they are intended.
Because this nervous system is involved in so many areas and helps the body to be in a state of rest, learning to activate this response and to regulate it better is a key factor in preventing and managing chronic stress.
How to Engage the Parasympathetic Nervous System for a Sense of Calm
The good news is, there are ways to train the body to be in a more relaxed state more regularly.
Learning to train the parasympathetic nervous system is a key factor in preventing and managing stress, as well as the consequences of stress, such as digestive issues, decreased productivity, and poor attention and concentration.
Engage the Deep Relaxation Response
One of the best ways to train the autonomic nervous system is to learn to engage the deep relaxation response which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. One of the best ways to do that is by engaging in relaxation training.
Relaxation training involves activating the calm response in the body with various techniques. This is different than passive relaxation, which includes activities such as reading a book, watching TV, and other leisure activities that may be relaxing.
Deep breathing and exercise are two great strategies to engage the deep relaxation response.
One of the best ways to engage the deep relaxation response and calm the body and mind is with deep breathing. Deep breathing has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, improve lung functioning, and reduce muscle tension. It is one of the best tools to prevent and manage chronic stress.
Training the parasympathetic nervous system is like training for anything else- practice is needed to be successful. Therefore, it is important to engage the deep relaxation response on a daily basis with deep breathing.
This may include 5 to 10 minutes of deep breathing practice in the morning or evening. Training the parasympathetic nervous system in this way can help prevent large escalations of stress. The strategy can also be used to quickly decrease stress when it does escalate.
Exercise is one of the best ways to improve parasympathetic nervous system functioning. During exercise, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for elevating the heart rate and blood pressure as blood flow increases with exercise intensity.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for regulating how high heart rate increases, breathing rate, and sweat production. The two of these systems work together to make sure that we are staying protected during exercise.
Because exercise involves training the cardiac system, exercise is a great way to train the parasympathetic nervous system, improve cardiac health, and decrease blood pressure.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to receive these benefits.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity for adults. Working up to this gradually can be a great way to train the nervous system and reduce stress.
Understanding the role of the nervous system in stress and anxiety is helpful to master the stress response. Mastering the stress response is one important factor in preventing high stress and managing stress in our daily lives.
Learning to train the autonomic nervous system is crucial for preventing and managing stress, reducing negative consequences of stress, and living a more fulfilling and productive life.
My signature Master Stress Method coaching program teaches you to master your stress response, master stress thinking, and master the low stress lifestyle for a comprehensive approach to take charge of your life.
Book a discovery call if you are ready to end the struggle with stress, for good, so you can reach your ultimate potential and accomplish everything you want in life.
----About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)