The nervous system is our main link to the environment that we are living in. Our nervous system has the ability to receive input, interpret it, and then respond to it accordingly. When the nervous system isn’t balanced, we often experience this as stress and anxiety. The nervous system is made of three main components, being the central nervous system, the peripheral nervous system, and the autonomic nervous system. Although they are all intimately connected, for calming the nervous system we will be focusing on the components of the autonomic nervous system and how they translate into our everyday lives.
The autonomic nervous system is broken down into the “parasympathetic” and the “sympathetic”. Although these systems are quite complex, they can be simplified down to being responsible for “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”. The sympathetic nervous system is very much involved in the stress response. It is useful in situations where we need to be on guard, helping us respond to situations in a quick and efficient way. The most common example used is the response needed to run from a bear. The parasympathetic, on the other hand, is at play during times of rest and relaxation. The parasympathetic state allows our body’s to have time to heal and repair from the high intensity of the sympathetic state.
While both the sympathetic and parasympathetic states are important in order to function properly, the sympathetic state often becomes overactive in our culture. With the constant “go, go, go”, little time is spent in a resting and repairing state. Once this occurs, it can be more and more difficult to tap into this parasympathetic healing state. As an imbalance in any system can contribute to dis-ease, the sympathetic system is the prime example of this. When constantly in a sympathetic state, the body manifests this as stress and anxiety, with an inability to slow down the mind. One may also have trouble digesting their food, leading to chronic gastrointestinal issues. Another manifestation of an overactive sympathetic nervous system is heart palpitations, or feeling like heart is beating very fast, and trouble sleeping.
The vagus nerve is the main parasympathetic nerve in the body. By tapping into the power of the vagus nerve, we can switch from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state more easily. The vagus nerve carries parasympathetic impulses to most chest and abdominal organs, including the lungs, heart and digestive organs. Through the anatomy and route of the vagus nerve, one can imagine the effects the parasympathetic nervous system will have, not only on the mind, but also on the entirety of our bodies.
There are many ways to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, some of them by directly activating the vagus nerve. A craniosacral therapy technique, called the “vagal hold” is a great tool to use. This is most easily done with a therapist or a friend, but is something you can do yourself as well. First, place one hand underneath the base of your skull. Your other hand can be placed on the heart space or the area of the stomach/intestines. If stress, anxiety, or sadness is more evident in the heart, this is a good choice. If there is distress in the gastrointestinal system, such as tension or nausea, a hand on that region will be helpful. The intention here is to connect to the vagus nerve, which exits the skull under your first hand, and makes contact with an end-organ (both the heart and the digestive organs) with your other hand. Keep your hands in these locations until you feel the body calming down. It can also be helpful here to take large inhales and exhales. The vagus also connects to your diaphragm, the muscle or respiration, so by taking deep breaths you are activating the vagus nerve as well.
Although it can be discouraging and sometimes overwhelming when you find yourself in an overactive sympathetic state, incorporating these tools into your everyday life can be extremely rewarding. Over time, tapping into the parasympathetic state will becomes easier and easier. This often translates to an overall more peaceful state of mind, which we could all use a little more of.