Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

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Our brain chemistry plays a major role in the development of addiction, so it stands to reason that it should play a role in recovery as well. A primary way of using your brain to enhance your recovery is to tap into the autonomic nervous system. This consists of two parts, each of which controls various involuntary processes. When we talk about “fight or flight,” we’re actually talking about a state in which one part—the sympathetic nervous system—goes into survival mode and assesses threat response. For our purposes, we should focus on the other part—the parasympathetic nervous system.

Just as we associate the sympathetic nervous system with fight or flight, we associate the parasympathetic nervous system with a response called “rest and digest.” Addicts spend a great deal of our time in survival mode, causing mass amounts of undue stress and fatigue. By tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, we can calm ourselves down and move through obstacles with greater ease. This will not eliminate those obstacles from our lives, but simply makes them easier to handle.

Since the parasympathetic nervous system maintains homeostasis, tapping into the PNS more often provides numerous health benefits. It lowers our blood pressure, improves our cortisol levels, and improves our circadian rhythm by promising better quality of sleep.

People achieve PNS activation through numerous techniques. These include yoga, aikido, tai chi, spa treatments, nature walks, qi gong or even just a dip in the pool. But if time and resources are limited, or if you need to calm down on the spot, you’ll need some simpler methods. In such instances, you’ll want to give the following a try.

PNS Activation Method #1 – Breathing Exercises

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When someone struggles with anger, the standard advice they receive is to take a deep breath and count to ten. This actually works on a very deep level, provided that you breathe from the diaphragm. When you breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth, you purge your lungs of excess carbon dioxide. Your body achieves a greater sense of homeostasis, allowing you a greater sense of calm. [NOTE: Do not overdo it. Contrary to popular myths regarding this technique, your body does not benefit from losing too much carbon dioxide.]

Another great breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 method. Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, and then release a whooshing exhale for eight. While you do this, try to focus on the sensations in your body. The expansion of your lungs, the feeling of the seat underneath you. Perhaps hold a positive image in your head as well—like your dog, or a happy memory.

Finally, you might try equal timed breathing. As suggested by the name of the exercise, breathe in for a set amount of time. Five seconds, perhaps. Then exhale for the same amount of time. Focus on your heart chakra, the center of your chest. Again, you will benefit if you try to generate positive feelings during this exercise. As studied by the HeartMath Institute, slow and deep breaths can improve your heart rate variability, which plays a major role in overall health.

If you really want to push the limits of equal timed breathing, you can actually use an app for it. You’ll find no shortage of paced breathing apps, so find one that works for you. Most of them will represent your breath as a wave. A cursor moves up the wave as you inhale and descends as you exhale. With enough practice, you can close your eyes as you continue breathing, then find upon opening them that you have more or less stayed with the cursor. You often find exercises like this in biofeedback, and they excel in producing a calming effect.

PNS Activation Method #2 – Mindfulness Meditation

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Breathing exercises play a large role in mindfulness meditation as well. Beginner meditation practices almost always focus exclusively on the breath. The idea is that you focus on what your body is feeling in this moment. If a thought intrudes upon your present-moment awareness, you briefly acknowledge it before setting it aside and continuing to focus on the present.

Many Buddhists believe that a person can perform meditation at any time without formality. We generally think of Zen sitting meditations, or meditating while lying flat on the ground. But there are also walking meditations, in which you cast your focus on the physical motion of walking as well as the sights immediately in front of you. Other practices include eating meditations and dancing meditations.

All meditation practices can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This may explain why meditation seems to offer a lot of the same health benefits that we attributed to PNS activation. And the good news is that it’s easy. You don’t need to sit on a meditation pillow for hours at a time, trying to reach perfect enlightenment. Even just a few minutes a day can offer great rewards. And as for perfect enlightenment—well, they don’t call this a “practice” for no reason. Some meditations will prove more successful than others. But as you increase your sense of mindfulness, you’ll find yourself utilizing present-moment awareness even outside of meditation. In so doing, you will activate your parasympathetic nervous system with greater frequency.

PNS Activation Method #3 – Emotional Awareness

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Emotions affect our bodies in numerous ways. When you become angry, you may experience a shortness of breath and a sensation of warmth under the collar. Your pulse will rise, and your face may tense up. This presents a great opportunity to practice the sort of spot-check mindfulness described above. Rather than taking a break from whatever you’re doing to meditate, you simply acknowledge how your body feels right now. This will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to relax.

This works because the moment you start focusing on the effects of your anger (or depression, or fear, or what have you), it draws focus from the cause of that feeling. Instead of obsessing over the source of your discontent, you bring yourself into the present. You eliminate the fight or flight response by removing your focus from whatever is causing your sympathetic nervous system to feel threatened.

PNS Activation Method #4 – Sensory Awareness

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You can practice the above form of parasympathetic nervous system activation without suffering the influence of negative emotions. Stop for a moment and feel the sensations present in each part of your body. The inside of your mouth may feel wet, or dry, depending on the circumstances. Perhaps your shoes are off and your toes feel slightly cool and tingly. Maybe you just ate and you can feel a satisfactory fullness in your belly. Take stock of all sorts of things you almost never pay attention to, like the feeling of your pants upon the skin of your legs. If you really stop and pay attention, you can even feel the cool sensation of the air in the room breezing lightly against your open eyes.

We so often take our physical presence for granted. By focusing on it with complete mindfulness, we do more than activate our parasympathetic nervous system. We also gain a fuller appreciation of the many feelings our body experiences during every second of every day. It’s one of those small, seemingly insignificant things that makes the very gift of life seem so much more incredibly vast than we often give it credit for.

PNS Activation Method #5 – Progressive Muscle Relaxation

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Don’t you hate it when people tell you to “try and relax”? It’s a marriage of two completely incompatible concepts. The moment you try, you stop relaxing. Unless, of course, you practice progressive muscle relaxation.

To be fair, you can easily relax your muscles without following this method. But for those of us who have more trouble than others, progressive muscle relaxation is a great way of relaxing our body while also firing up the parasympathetic nervous system. In this method of PNS activation, you actually start by tightening your muscles. Start with your toes, then move up to your calves, your thighs, and so on. After doing the chest and back, try raising your shoulders and then rolling your neck. Squeeze the muscles in your face. Don’t worry about how ridiculous you look—no one is watching you. It doesn’t seem as if stressing your muscles could help you to achieve relaxation. But upon releasing, each muscle will feel practically weightless. By the end of the exercise, you’ll feel practically like a rag doll.

If this is too much work, you could always relax your muscles with a massage or a trip to the sauna. But if you’re in the middle of your day and need to relax quickly, this method will help you out. And the best part? Not only does this activate the parasympathetic nervous system, but PNS activation also makes you feel more relaxed. It acts as a perfect illustration of just how well activating the parasympathetic nervous system can work wonders for both our bodies and minds.

PNS Activation Method #6 – Affirmations and Gratitude

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Each of the above PNS activation methods takes us into the present and away from the source of our stress. And while sometimes easier said than done, we can actually accomplish this using nothing but kind words. Positive psychology indicates that optimism can increase not only our general well-being, but even our productivity. We activate our parasympathetic nervous system, making it easier to overcome our difficulties because we feel more at ease.

There are two simple forms of positive thinking you can practice every morning. One is the use of daily affirmations. Some may argue whether these really work, and the answer tends to be that it relies on the individual. If you cannot bring yourself to believe your affirmations, they may actually cause you stress. But just like meditation, positive thinking takes practice. The point is to say your affirmations until you can at least believe that they might be true. Once you get to this point, the journey toward full acceptance of your positive thoughts becomes much easier.

Another thing we often suggest is daily gratitude lists. Start each day by listing even just three things for which you feel grateful. This often proves easier for many than their affirmations, as they have less trouble identifying positive qualities in things and people outside of themselves. But no matter which form of positive thinking you use—and you might try using both—you can start your day off with a nice little boost to your parasympathetic nervous system. This allows you to meet the world in a state of relaxation and relative homeostasis. It’s a lot easier to maintain this feeling if you start with it, compared to starting off in a state of stress and having to fight through it every minute of the day.

Using Your PNS at Amethyst

We’ve presented these PNS activation exercises for you to try at your leisure, but we should note that we also incorporate them into our programs.

For instance, we offer one afternoon group each week based on the Seeking Safety model of trauma therapy. In this group, clients will not only learn about recovery but will also practice progressive muscle relaxation before engaging in a meditation exercise. As for emotional awareness and sensory awareness, these ideas factor into one of the many enlightened groups led by our primary recovery philosophy facilitator. And of course, we will provide ample opportunities for gratitude and positive thinking in our therapeutic sessions. Certain other PNS activation methods we’ve mentioned in passing—yoga and massage therapy, for instance—are offered at our facilities as well.

Teaching you to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is just one of the many unique ways in which Amethyst can help you enhance your recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and would like to benefit from a unique and enlightened recovery model, contact us today for more information. It’ll be an experience you’ll never forget.

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