Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System: 50 Ways to Relax and Regain Balance in Your Life

Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system functions to regulate the body's unconscious actions, and is divided into two categories: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which work antagonistically to one another (you operate in either one state or the other, never both at the same time).

The sympathetic nervous system is the “feed and breed” mode (also known as fight or flight), whereby the body is stimulated for activity by hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), as well as stress hormone cortisol. We go into this mode to hunt, fight, run away, and reproduce… all things that have ensured our survival as a species. It’s like the gas pedal of a car.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” mode, and essentially is the flip side to fight or flight: relaxation. It is in this mode that the body repairs itself, regains energy. To sleep and heal properly, you need to tap into this state; which is dominated by hormone acetylcholine (that drops the heart rate). It’s like the brake pedal of a car.

So our nervous system is either in this ACTIVE (sympathetic) mode, or REST (parasympathetic) mode, neither which is better or worse than the other. Problems start to arise when we lose balance between the two, and since the sympathetic (stress) system trumps the parasympathetic (relax) system, the imbalance tends to be in favour of the the fight or flight. Between work stress, too much exercise, too little sleep, junk food, and all the fear in the media- needless to say most people these days are stuck in alert mode. Being stuck on alert means the hormone cortisol is coursing through our veins, which is related to a plethora of problems:

Continuous exposure to low levels of underlying stress (cortisol) will result in:

  • Suppressed immunity

  • Hypertension

  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)

  • Insulin resistance

  • Carbohydrate cravings

  • Metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes

  • Fat deposits on the face, neck, and belly

  • Reduced libido

  • Adrenal fatigue

  • Bone loss

On the flip side, managing your cortisol will result in improved:

  • Sleep quality

  • Daytime energy

  • Immunity

  • Stress response

  • Organ function

  • Libido

  • Hormone Sensitivity

Meditating on top of the Haleakala Volcano crater is most definitely tapping into the parasympathetic.

Meditating on top of the Haleakala Volcano crater is most definitely tapping into the parasympathetic.

50 Ways to Relax and Regain Balance in Your Life

Below are 25 things that trigger this sympathetic nervous system, followed by 25 ways to tap into the sympathetic nervous system. Relaxation (i.e. reducing cortisol) will come when you find balance between the list 1 and list 2, and understanding that:

The sympathetic nervous system will trump the parasympathetic nervous system every time, a function that ensured our survival. If you were planning on having a nap but out of the bush jumps a predator, your body needs to activate the sympathetic nervous system to enable you to fight or flight. So making time throughout the day completely void of all any any of the things from list 1, to enable the body to rest. This is especially important in the latter part of the day, as we prepare for sleep, because cortisol competes with melatonin (our sleep hormone), so if you’re in sympathetic mode, you will not be getting a deep sleep.

A few other things to note is that things that activate each system are not exclusive to physical triggers. Stress can come in the form of physical stress (like having to sprint from a lion, or being exposed to toxins) OR from perceived stress (like worrying that there might be a lion, or worrying about the toxin exposure the following day). This is one of the biggest reasons that modern day people are stuck in sympathetic mode, because stress is everywhere. We stress about our relationships, our jobs, our families, not to mention the fear based society we live in that blasts us with news of warfare, accidents, and impending catastrophes around the globe.

The plot thickens, knowing that being in a sympathetic (“stress”) nervous system state is not always a bad thing! In fact, stress can be good for the body. Hormesis is a type of stress that stimulates the body to adapt and ultimately become more strong. Things like sauna, vigorous exercise, and even eating broccoli sprouts trigger our stress response, but are beneficial in the long run. However, if you are sick (dealing with adrenal fatigue, a chronic infection, parasites) it’s very possible that any of the things that awaken the sympathetic nervous system will make you sicker. Thriving in the long run requires a balance between the two nervous systems, but if you’re trying to un-do severe damage, better opt to stay parasympathetic (relaxed) as much as possible. 

Sauna is a great source or hormetic stress, but tapping into the sympathetic nervous system when you are sick might do more harm than good.  (Bains de Pâquis Sauna in Geneva, Switzerland)

Sauna is a great source or hormetic stress, but tapping into the sympathetic nervous system when you are sick might do more harm than good. (Bains de Pâquis Sauna in Geneva, Switzerland)

Things that Awaken the Sympathetic (Stress) Nervous System:

  1. Caffeine

  2. Toxins (found in tap water, artificial body care, pesticides and herbicides, air pollution, BPAs, plastic, carpet, etc)

  3. Vigorous exercise

  4. Sex

  5. Eating in general but especially:

  6. GMOs/ hybridized foods

  7. Refined sugar

  8. Refined/ rancid oils

  9. Refined grains 

  10. Food allergies

  11. Allergies in general

  12. Extreme heat (sauna) or extreme cold (cold shower, cold plunge, cryotherapy)

  13. Worrying

  14. Overthinking

  15. Stressful job (both physical labour or mental stress)

  16. Stressful relationships (worrying/ overthinking about your partner, friends, kids)

  17. Physical pain (caused by accident or self-inflicted)

  18. Heart break 

  19. Fear (perceived or real) which could be anything from watching the news, to a scary movie, to walking down a dark alleyway at night, to being chased by a lunatic with a knife

  20. Artificial light (especially after the sun sets)

  21. Artificial scents (most perfumes)

  22. Electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) (i.e. wifi, smart meters, cellphones, cell phone towers, miswired electrical sockets, bluetooth, wireless headphones, fitbits and other exercise tracking devices, iWatch, smart TVs)

  23. Being disorganized

  24. Having too many belongings

  25. Holding a grudge

Things that Awaken the Parasympathetic (Relax) Nervous System 

  1. Meditation

  2. Deep belly breathing (from the diaphragm) 

  3. Doodling

  4. Gentle walking (especially along winding paths)

  5. Sunbathing 

  6. Reading

  7. Spend quiet time in nature/ being barefoot in the earth (as long as it’s not sprayed with herbicides)

  8. Get a massage

  9. Prayer

  10. Restorative yoga

  11. Tai chi

  12. Qigong

  13. Counting backwards slowly from 10

  14. Listening to calming music

  15. Spending time with animals

  16. Laughing

  17. Visualization (structured daydreaming, like visualizing a tranquil forest of beach)

  18. Mantras (like “I am enough” “I am safe” “I am grounded” “I am balanced”)

  19. Acupressure/ acupuncture

  20. Rolling your feet arches with a lacrosse ball/ foam rolling your muscles and fascia

  21. Laying back, and elevating your legs above your heart 

  22. Gentle stretching

  23. Being organized

  24. Living a minimalistic life

  25. Forgiveness 

Finding balance between the two nervous systems is paramount to finding balance, and living a long, healthy life.

Hopefully you gained some insight on how to balance your levels of stress, and tap into the parasympathetic nervous system. May your day be filled with periods of rest, and may your nights be filled with deep regenerative sleep.