3 Ways To Calm An Overactive Sympathetic Nervous System (Stress Response)
To be calm is the highest achievement of the self.
We all go through periods of chronic stress and challenge.
Stress is unavoidable and can, under the right conditions, even be a beneficial experience. (i.e. eustress)
We can’t escape stress, but we can befriend it.
We can learn to control our stress response and channel that energy in constructive and creative ways.
It will take a few tweaks and even the adoption of some new habits but with consistency and willingness, you can rise above your fight or flight response to make way for more well-being, mental health, insight, creativity, and healing.
If you’re finding it hard to manage stress in your life chances are you’ve got an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
Keep reading to find out how to calm your nervous system down so the stresses, challenges, and demands of life become easier and more manageable…
Your Body Is Intelligent & Wise – Take Advantage Of It
Your nervous system, in fact, is a circulating nervous system. It thinks. It’s conscious.
– Deepak Chopra, doctor & author
Your body is wise and intelligent.
The crowning achievement of the intelligence of the human body is the nervous system.
Everything you perceive through your senses – everything you can see, hear, taste, smell, intuit, and touch is processed through the nervous system.
Like a good gatekeeper, it helps you maneuver through life by keeping track of every single little sensory detail of your experience so you don’t consciously have to.
Your nervous system is constantly sifting through astounding amounts of data while it scans your environment and processes your surroundings.
It matches incoming sensory information with previously recorded data in order to match relevant patterns:
When we experience chronic stress and overwhelm and we keep reacting in the same emotional way over and over, we condition our nervous system to (mis)read our environment based on past experiences, and the associations and perceptions we’ve formed around those experiences.
Our nervous system then, being the intelligent processor and gatekeeper, diligently keeps seeking and running those old-patterned programs and subconscious emotional memories over and over recreating the same or similar experiences and reactions in an attempt to reconcile its pattern matching nature.
Pair this with future anticipation and expectations based on past experiences, and it’s easy to see how we could be setting our own selves up for frustration.
This creates a vicious cycle that leaves us feeling exhausted and drained.
Most of this happens underneath our conscious and voluntary level of awareness.
The speed at which our nervous system processes all of this environmental information is lightning quick, which is why so often we feel like our mental and emotional state is out of our control.
This is what leads to an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
Understanding Your Own Nervous System & How It Functions
Your stress response is linked to your autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is a part of your peripheral nervous system (PNS).
Your ANS oversees vital and basic body functions such as breathing, blood sugar, blood pressure / blood flow, and heart rate.
It communicates with your central nervous system (CNS) which is comprised of your brain and spinal cord and also interacts with your immune system.
The ANS is divided into two branches.
This is how to the two systems work:
1 – The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
Think of SNS activity as the gas pedal – the more sympathetic activity the more you are mobilizing and using up vital energy.
The SNS oversees the stress response and so, is activated when you perceive something as life-threatening.
Back in the caveman days, the SNS is what kept us alive – if we saw a tiger and had to literally run for our lives the SNS is what gave us that jolt of energy to fight or flee.
The SNS activates your adrenal glands to produce stress hormones like norepinephrine (noradrenaline) that signal your body to get on high alert.
With increased heart rate you’re now ready for intense physical activity (fight or flee).
We may not be encountering real-life tigers in our day to day life, but we do experience a wide range of stressful situations.
Whether they’re real, actually life-threatening, or perceived – your body and nervous system process them all in the same way – by activating your SNS.
If we don’t learn to recalibrate, self-regulate, and self-soothe we’ll soon experience an autonomic imbalance which can lead to other issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease or heart failure, autoimmune issues, blood sugar issues, and even mental health issues.
2 – The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS)
If the SNS is the gas pedal that accelerates energy in your body then the PSNS is the brake pedal that slows it all down and balances it all out.
Your parasympathetic systems oversee the relaxation response – which is also known as the calming response or the regenerative response.
All healing takes place in this restorative system.
Blood pressure drops, blood sugar regulates, heart rate goes down, heart rate variability (HRV) goes up, and immune function strengthens.
That’s why it’s extremely important to create habits in daily life that activate this branch…
3 Ways To Calm An Overactive SNS
The main idea to remember here is that you calm SNS by activating PSNS activity.
This helps you take your foot off the as pedal and leave it on the brake pedal long enough to create some real healing and wholeness.
Here are 3 proven ways to activate your parasympathetic (relaxation) response:
1 – Breathing Exercises
Deep intentional belly breathing with your lower abdomen is one of the fastest and easiest ways to awaken your parasympathetic nervous system.
This is because of the vagus nerve, a major parasympathetic nerve that runs from the base of your head down your ear and throat and down to your abdominal and digestive organs.
Every time you breathe with your belly you activate your diaphragm and your vagus nerve which acts as an automatic chill pill.
Try this breathing meditation to help get you started.
2 – Gratitude Practice (Santosha)
It turns out that a regular gratitude practice is powerful medicine and can even help to re-wire an anxious brain for the better.
Maybe that’s why the yogic practice of contentment (Santosha) is one of the key practices on the true yogic path.
The Institute of Heartmath has spent the last 20-something years researching how certain emotional states impact your overall heart intelligence and well-being.
According to their research positive emotions and positive feelings such as gratitude, appreciation, contentment, and inspiration activate heart coherence and PSNS activity.
By the same token, negative emotions create a state of incoherence and activate SNS activity.
Heartmath measured heart rate variability while experiencing different emotional states and found that:
“Distinct heart rhythm patterns characterize different emotional states…
Sustained emotions such as appreciation, care, compassion, and love generate a smooth, sine-wave-like pattern in the heart’s rhythms.
This reflects increased order in higher-level control systems in the brain, increased synchronization between the two branches of the ANS, and a general shift in autonomic balance towards an increased parasympathetic activity.” (5)
The graphs below are illustrations of HMI HRV readings.
The top red is during a moment of frustration.
Notice the erratic, jagged pattern.
The bottom blue was recorded during a moment of appreciation.
Notice the more harmonious, sine-wave like pattern.
3 – Chanting
Believe it or not, chanting and humming are a proven way to stimulate your vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
This means that it can help you increase inner calm by activating your parasympathetic response.
Your vagus nerve runs from the base of your head down your ear and throat, down to your heart, and your digestive and internal organs.
According to Dr. Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory, the vibrations from the vocalizations of chanting out loud or humming actually “wake up” your vagus nerve so it comes online.
If you commit to doing any of these three things on a regular basis you will train your body to enter the ‘calm space’ that inevitably increases health and well-being.
The more you do this the more your total power increases – mental power, emotional power, physical power, and even creative power.
Just remember that controlling your breath, tapping into gratitude, and chanting/humming can be soothing and help each successive heartbeat slow down and create more space.