Danger, worry, anxiety and stress activates the “fight or flight” mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system. In fact, we’ve all experienced it numerous times in our lives. It doesn’t even have to be actual physical danger. If you’ve ever had a frightening experience, an accident or been involved in some other dangerous situation, you know when you just think about it, you can experience those fearful emotions even though it may have happened years before.
The opposite is also true. Stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system activates the rest and digest mode. This is when the body is enabled to be restored and rebuilt. We need both systems. Here’s a great way to think about it: The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems act like the accelerator and brakes on a car. The sympathetic system is the accelerator, always ready to rev up and take us out of danger. The parasympathetic system is the brakes, slowing us down when danger isn’t present.
Unfortunately, especially in our crazy, stressful world, most people are running constantly in fight or flight mode and that breaks down the body. This is what chronic stress does to us. However, we can use our minds to activate the healing, parasympathetic system.
Scripture tells us in Proverbs 23:7, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” Well, this study found that taking part in self-compassion exercises like thinking kind thoughts can put the body in a state of relaxation and safety. Their findings suggest that being kind to yourself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing.
During this study, 135 healthy college students were divided into five groups. Each was provided with 11-minute audio instructions. Two groups were instructed to think kindly about themselves and others and the three other groups were instructed to think in a self-critical manner.
Upon listening to their particular audio instructions the groups were asked whether they felt safe, how likely they were to show themselves kindness and how connected they felt to others, as well as having their heart rate and sweat responses monitored.
The heart rates of the students who were instructed to think kindly about themselves dropped, which is a healthy sign of a heart that can respond flexibly to situations. The groups who listened to the critical audio clips had a higher heart rate and sweat response afterwards, both of which indicate “feelings of threat and distress.” Their findings suggest that being kind to yourself switches off the threat response and puts your body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing.
Some other ways to activate the parasympathetic system are:
Spending time in nature
Practicing meditation, prayer, EFT, visualization
Deep abdominal, diaphragmatic breathing
Focusing on a calming word such as love or peace
Playing with animals or children
Practicing yoga or tai chi
Doing something you enjoy, such as a favorite hobby
I’ve even read that lightly running your fingers over your lips activates the parasympathetic system because your lips have parasympathetic fibers spread throughout them.
Improving your health can be as simple as paying attention to what you are thinking!
What types of thoughts typically run through your mind – kind or self-critical? Do you notice how they affect your emotions?
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