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Stress Management: Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Aug 2, 2019

How to Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Most people know the fight or flight response is a characteristic of human survival whenever presented with a life-threatening situation. What is unfortunate is that this response is felt today by many people in response to non-life-threatening stressors which arouse considerable anxiety.

Repeated stress responses are harmful, according to Harvard Health Publishing, and studies suggest chronic stress contributes to increased blood pressure, the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and can lead to changes in brain chemistry that results in anxiety, depression, and addiction.

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How do the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems Work?

Understanding how to make use of your parasympathetic nervous system to manage stress and anxiety can promote better mental health as well as lasting sobriety by reducing the urge to turn to addictive substances.

The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the two parts of what’s known as our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling bodily functions that we don’t perform consciously such as breathing, digestion, and our heartbeat.

While the sympathetic nervous system is like a gas pedal that activates the stress response in times of danger to protect us, the parasympathetic nervous system is our body’s brake system when no danger is present. The sympathetic nervous system will release hormones during intense stress to keep us on high alert known as corticotropin until the threat subsides. At which point, the parasympathetic nervous system releases its own hormones to relax the brain and body and inhibit or slow many of the high energy functions of the body.

We can handle our stress better when we put practices into place which activate our parasympathetic nervous system (which is sometimes called the “rest and digest” nervous system).

Here are some simple practices to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system so that our bodies and minds can cope with stress in more sustainable ways. 

Deep Breathing

When our breath is shallow and fast, we’re most likely in “fight or flight” mode. We can pause this by consciously turning our attention to the breath. Use diaphragmatic breathing by taking deep inhales into the belly, and slow, relaxing exhales. This helps us enter a state of lowered stress and increased relaxation. 

One way to practice this is by inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, and exhaling for 4 seconds. Repeat the pattern 10 times, and increase from 4 to 6 seconds to deepen the practice.


Yoga, or any movement where you’re mindfully connecting movement and breath, will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and combat stress. Yoga has many stress reduction benefits and its meditative movements combined with focusing on the breath will put your mind and body at ease.


When we get sweaty and active, our bodies send more blood and oxygen throughout our system. Our bodily functions, such as digestion and relaxation response, improve when we start the cool-down process.

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness simply involves being present in the moment and engaging the senses. You can engage mindfulness practices anytime — when you’re doing the dishes, walking, or talking with friends. When we live the moment, focus on the breath and our present experiences, and stop worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, our bodies and mind relax.


Getting regular massages is known to restore the balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They can aid us in feeling stronger, calmer, and more able to fight infection. Massages also help retrain our bodies to move into the parasympathetic nervous system quicker.


Eating healthy keeps us fit, but avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and sugar can also help in the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. A diet with the right balance of foods groups can go a long way towards supporting the parasympathetic nervous system.


Getting sufficient sleep is good for overall well-being as it allows your body to rest and recover. During deep sleep, blood flow to your muscles is increased which brings oxygen and nutrients to your cells to repair and regenerate them.

Prayer and Meditation

Prayer and meditation can help us slow our thoughts and help us to stop focusing on our source of stress. Like mindfulness training, these practices can help place us in the present moment and allow us to have better cognitive control of our emotions.

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