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5 ways to engage your parasympathetic nervous system

our parasympathetic nervous system forms one third of our autonomic nervous system and is otherwise known as our rest and digest state. when activated, our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for lowering our blood pressure, slowing our breathing and heart rate and promoting digestion. the opposite of this is our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as our fight or flight response. this system prepares us for emergencies and is associated with a fast heart rate, shallow and quick breathing and sweating. it is also the state in which cortisol is being released into our bloodstream which can be associated to high levels of anxiety and panic. in an ideal world, these two systems function and work together in some kind of balance however, as a society it is becoming more apparent that most of us are spending more time in our fight or flight response due to the stresses and pressures of modern life. although fight or flight is a totally natural response that keeps us safe, it's not a response we want to be stuck in. when we have a dominate sympathetic nervous system we can end up responding this way by default when experiencing things that aren't necessarily a threat to us. this is where feelings like anxiety and panic can easily spiral into disorders and panic attacks. it's so important that we recognise the bodily science behind these responses so we can take back control and find balance.

to best protect and promote our health and wellbeing, we should aim to spend more time in a rest and digest state. this involves engaging our vagus nerve which is the central component to our parasympathetic nervous system. the vagus nerve sends impulses from the brain to the body and also back from the body to the brain. let's find out below what steps we can take to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system more often;

*DISCLAIMER* it's worth noting that the tips and ideas mentioned below may not be suitable for everyone. always consult with a medical professional before taking part in any of the tips, ideas and/or exercises mentioned below.

1) breathing exercises mindful breathing using your diaphragm and extended exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve and lowers our stress response. a great way to ensure that you are using your diaphragm rather than your chest to breathe is by placing your hands on your lower belly, feeling the rise and fall with each breath you take. you can follow counts to make sure you are exhaling longer than your inhale and it's generally easier this way as you can follow a rhythm. you will need to do a few rounds to start feeling the benefits. deep breathing also improves heart rate variability which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals. we love following @breathbynathan and @iceman_hof for guidance on the breath.

2) yoga positions

yoga doesn't always have to be an hour class in a trendy studio, it can be something you can easily dip into at home and the benefits can be felt even if you are short on time. there are 3 fantastic poses that can help to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system and they are most commonly found in the restorative form of yoga practice; legs up the wall (viparita karani) - resting in an inverted pose encourages breathing to slow, stimulating the vagus nerve. rest here for a while to feel the full benefits and signal to the body we are winding down. child's pose (salamba balasana) - a calming cocooning pose, with your head in contact with the earth to help you feel grounded and connected. reclined bound angle's pose (supta baddha konsana) - opens up the heart and hips, a great position to place your hands on your lower belly and practice some deep breathing to truly release any tension you may be holding onto. try practicing one of these poses before bed to signal to your body it's time to relax.

3) tapping/EFT the emotional freedom technique is a self help technique which involves tapping on meridian points of the body whilst thinking of a feeling or problem we might be facing. tapping on our body in this way sends a signal to our amygdala (nestled in our brains and involved in processing our emotions and memories) to turn down our fear response, particularly helping with feelings of anxiety, panic and stress. since we are using touch to communicate to our brain that there is no threat, the response from our brains is far greater than telling ourselves with words that we are safe. there are various videos on YouTube to guide you on this technique or check out this article here to get started. 4) ice

another way to engage your parasympathetic nervous system is by using ice, which many of us will have handy in our freezers at home especially during the summer! if you feel overwhelmed by an intense emotion try holding a few cubes of ice in your hand, or moving a cube along your arms, face and neck. the cooling sensation of the ice will help to reduce your body temperature and turns your attention to the feeling of the ice on your skin. using ice can help to cool your vagus nerve tone which allows your body to rebound and relax faster after a stressful event or situation. 5) herbal and aromatherapy remedies there are various wonderful herbs and oils that can help to support and balance our nervous system including lavender, bergamot, frankincense, roman chamomile and rose.

we love drinking chamomile tea as it contains a phytonutrient compound called apigenin, which is believed to have relaxing, sedative effects. it's a cup of calm that gives our overworked nervous system permission to slow down. we also love using aromatherapy products in the home such as the sleepy head room and pillow spray mist from made by coopers which is a soothing blend of lavender, chamomile and frankincense essential oils. this product is perfect to use at night time to help you drift off into a peaceful slumber. we also love burning aromatherapy candles, such as the nathalie bond bloom candle which is hand poured using rose geranium and patchouli essential oils known to calm anxiety and encourage emotional balance. this floral blend can gently shift low moods, providing comfort to those in need of a lift.

once you start tapping into the ways to engage your parasympathetic nervous system, you have tools for life! when you make a conscious effort it's something that can easily become more dominate when you need it to be, particularly during times of stress or worry.

do you have any tried and tested methods to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system? share with us below.

stay well,

sophie x

founder of the conscious collective

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