The simple act of mindful breathing, and other ways to bring your nervous system back into balance
The autonomic nervous system plays a crucial role in the maintenance of homeostasis, yet functions without conscious or voluntary control. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system in the body: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Each of these systems are dominant under certain conditions.
The sympathetic division forms the “fight-or-flight” response to an emergency or stressful situation. The overall effect of the sympathetic system under these conditions is to prepare the body for strenuous physical activity. More specifically, sympathetic nervous system activity will increase the flow of well-oxygenated, nutrient rich blood to the tissues that need it, in particular, the working skeletal muscles.
The parasympathetic division forms the body’s “rest and digest” response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. The parasympathetic system works to undo the work of the sympathetic division after a stressful situation. Among other functions, the parasympathetic division works to decrease respiration and heart rate, increase digestion, and allows the elimination of waste.
The amount of stress we are under and how we control that stress will determine which branch is firing most often. With a pandemic, homeschooling, working from home, financial struggles, social media, air pollution, water pollution and a food system that pushes processed foods, many of us are left malnourished, and in a constant state of “fight-or-flight”. This sympathetic dominance creates an overall imbalance in our bodies, slowing down all non-emergency processes, such as digestion, detoxification, and sleep.
Here is where voluntary and conscious behavior comes into play. Mindful, slow breathing can be a potent and pivotal practice to help toggle your nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic. This conscious breath will bring your body into balance, allowing digestion, detoxification, repair, and relaxation to take place.
Mindful breathing calls for a focus on your breath. It encourages the shift from short, shallow chest breathing, to deep belly breathing with a slow inhale and extended exhale. There are many different mindful breathing techniques and strategies. You can explore the type of slow breath technique that works best for you. One helpful strategy is to take the 4, 4, 4 approach.
Before you begin eating, when you’re feeling tense, or anytime you’d like to further relax:
-inhale through your nose for a slow count of 4
– hold your breath for a count of 4
– exhale for a slow count of 4
Repeat several times or until you feel yourself relaxing.
Slow, mindful breath is a simple yet powerful practice that will encourage your body to find balance and function optimally. Our breath is a potent tool to support the parasympathetic nervous system and many vital functions within the body. Finding time each day to come back to your breath is a wonderful and simple way to practice self-care.
Some other ways to bring yourself back to a
parasympathetic state are:
Chiropractic adjustments allow the nervous system to function optimally. They promote proper rest functions to allow the parasympathetic system to calm you down if your sympathetic system is overactive and causing chronic stress.
Fueling your body with high quality, nutrient dense foods will help to keep your body and nervous system in balance. We stress our bodies when we provide it with poor quality, processed foods. This stress can put your body into a state of “fight or flight”. Providing your body with nutritious food and staying away from foods that are unhealthy or foods that we have sensitivities to goes a long way in keeping our nervous systems in balance. Check out our Nutrition Response Testing and Nutritional Coaching programs.
Massage therapy has been shown to restore balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Massage makes us stronger, calmer and more able to fight infection. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, massage promotes recovery and healing.
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Meditation helps us to deal with stress that we cannot control. During meditation our heart rate and breathing is slowed, and our blood pressure can be reduced. These are all indications that our parasympathetic nervous system has been activated.
Similar to meditation, regular yoga practice can bring you back into a parasympathetic state while increasing strength and flexibility.
Chris Frisch, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner
Updated May 1, 2021