The body’s nervous system is amazing. In times of extreme stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) produces a number of hormones, including epinephrine (AKA adrenaline), and increases blood flow to the muscles and heart. This results in increased blood pressure and extra oxygen going to the legs and arms so that we can do what we need to do to survive, whether that’s escape (flight) or face the threat head on (fight).
During this time, blood flow to the stomach, bladder, and digestive tract is reduced. Bodily functions that are not crucial to survival are put on hold. Once the situation has passed, the body can then return to more normal processes, carried out under the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), otherwise known as our “rest-and-digest” system.
For our ancestors, a stressor may have been an experience of coming across an angry lion in the woods. For these people and their bodies, it would’ve been easy to tell if and when the threat had passed. And it certainly didn’t happen every day. But for us in modern times, every contentious business meeting, partner squabble, Zoom call, traffic jam, microaggression, snide comment…even someone stealing the parking spot you had your blinker on for can trigger the fight-or-flight response within us. We might logically understand that these situations are not life-threatening, but the body does not recognize the difference, and it provides the same chemicals and hormones as if they were.
In modern times, we’re often hopping from one stressor to another, which is how our bodies can get stuck in the “on” position, a state we often refer to as burnout (take our quiz to see how burned out you are). Without a cue that the threat has passed, our body will keep pumping out stress hormones, keeping us on edge, and, if kept on long enough, put us at higher risk for chronic illnesses.
Eliminating and reducing stressors in our lives must be priority number one in helping our body spend more time in the PSNS, where we heal, digest, metabolize, and rebuild tissue. But we also need ways in which we can offer our body the cue that the danger is over, and it can resume more normal activities. Here are five ways to do that.
Shake It Off
At first blush, this advice might sound dismissive or a little like gaslighting. But rather, “shaking off” stress is exactly what we mammals are designed to do once a threat has passed. It is the language that the body recognizes as a return to normal. For instance, look at how this impala does it after a close encounter with death.
What might this look like for you? Perhaps it is literally letting your body shake after a stressful encounter or drive. Maybe you turn on some favorite music and dance away the stress. Or perhaps you like gentler movements like qi gong, tai chi, or yoga. Any time we get out of our protective, huddled, fetal positions and allow our bodies to move expansively and freely, we help it shift back into the PSNS.
In the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski call this “completing the cycle.” They write: “Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live.”
Breathing and Meditation Practices
We often tell each other to take deep breaths when we’re in the throes of a stressful situation, and that’s for a good reason: It works. A deep breath is one that is slower and more mindful, but also extends down deep into the diaphragm. Think of trying to get your breath down into the belly area rather than letting it stay just in the chest.
Once you get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing, you can increase the benefits by exhaling for twice as long as you inhale, which is called 2:1 breathing. Breathing in these ways gives the body a cue that everything is okay, and it can turn off the alarm systems.
It’s so unfortunate that our culture has normalized lack of sleep and that, in some circles, running on just a few hours of sleep a night is a bragging right. The science says differently. Sleep is not a luxury; it is medicine. It is during sleep, particularly deep sleep, where muscles are repaired, information is synthesized, and we unconsciously sort through and process our emotions. Uninterrupted, deep sleep is how we can feel refreshed in the truest sense of the word.
This article provides steps on how to ensure a great night of sleep that will, in turn, teach the body to spend more time in the PSNS.
The food choices we make each day have a direct impact on our nervous system. Sugar, caffeine, processed foods, soda, and the like have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and thus keep us ramped up and on edge. On the other hand, nutrient-dense vegetables, particularly root vegetables, can help recruit the parasympathetic nervous system and help us relax, rest, and digest.
A stress-reducing diet includes a wide variety of protein to ensure that the body receives all the amino acids it needs. It should also include good, healthy fats from avocados, flax seeds, nuts, fish, and so on. These foods nourish the PSNS.
Adaptogens are a variety of herbs that can help the body cope with stress. In Ayurveda, these herbs are renowned for rebuilding ojas, an invisible, supportive energy that provides a buffer between us and the stressors of life. The more ojas we have, the better we bounce back from the minor stresses of life. Ojas provides stability to the body and mind, allowing us to weather changes with greater ease and grace. The following herbs are great for building ojas (just make sure to consult with a healthcare practitioner before using!):
Final Thoughts on Restoring the Rest-and-Digest System
Stress isn’t all bad. Occasional, situational stress can be good for us. Things like giving a speech, taking a hard exercise class, or applying for a new job are stressors that, when used appropriately, can make us stronger. But in lieu of the unlikely event that our society shifts toward a way of being that respects and allows for more rest and restoration, it remains up to us to keep our bodies from only ever hearing stress sirens. A few simple changes like the ones above can teach the body to save its stress response for the times when we really need it.
Take our quiz to see how burned out you are—and what might help.