Many of us suffer from high demands on our time, high blood pressure in our veins, and/or high-speed information overload. Our lives feel more like a mad dash to a far-off finish line than a Sunday stroll through the park. 

We would love to stop and smell the proverbial roses, but there is too much to worry about. And even if we could take the time, do we even remember how to truly calm down?

It’s time to restore the balance, for the sake of our health. When our minds and bodies carry the burden of disproportionate stress, they can begin to exhibit negative health symptoms. Thankfully, our bodies have some built-in solutions.

Specifically, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems help our bodies react to our surroundings. These systems are part of our involuntary nervous system - the overarching network that regulates essential processes like our breathing and heartbeat without us having to think about it.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers a “fight or flight” response to stimuli (like our mad dash). By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) generates what is sometimes called a “rest and digest” response (like our Sunday stroll).

These systems are linked proportionally. Think of them like a see-saw: when the usage of one system goes up, the other goes down. The perfect position is a balance between the two, or at least one end not monopolizing the other.

Unfortunately, many of us live in states of continuous stress, and this keeps the sympathetic system turned on. Some reasons for this are the fast pace of our modern lives, sensory overload, and living in fear of something real or imagined.

In other words, imagine a really heavy kid on the see-saw who never lets the skinny kid down. The heavy kid represents our SNS. The result? We feel constantly revved up and on high alert.

There is good news! There are simple ways to turn on the PNS to calm ourselves down and restore balance in our lives. With practice, we can “give more weight” to this system when we feel life spiraling out of control.

  • Breathe deeply. Take some deep breaths into the belly area. Place a hand there and feel the stomach rise and fall with the breath. Completely exhale using the diaphragm. Feel the pace of your breathing slow down.
  • Focus on one thing. In conjunction with deep breathing, calmly turn your full attention on whatever is in front of you. Reject multitasking and embrace the moment.
  • Slow down. Reduce the speed of whatever you are doing so that you can relax into the process.
  • Touch the lips. Lightly run a finger or two over your lips to stimulate the PNS fibers there.
  • Visualize a calm place. Picture yourself in a safe, beautiful natural setting, like a forest or beach. Imagine all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings.

In closing, here is a Valentine’s Day tip: the PNS is actually directly linked to romantic feelings and reactions. Being able to slow ourselves down and fully pay attention to our sweethearts may be just what we need this season!

By Chrissie Kaufmann, YMCA of Southwest Michigan