Maybe you’ve heard of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) before, maybe not. Either way, this subsection of your nervous system is playing an integral part in your everyday life. The autonomic nervous system is a part of your peripheral nervous system that controls a wide range of involuntary physiologic processes. These are things that we don’t think about, but that are necessary to keep us alive. Some examples include breathing, heart rate, metabolism, body temperature, and digestion.
There are three components of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and the enteric systems. The enteric nervous system (ENS) regulates digestive processes. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” system. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is generally thought of as the “rest and digest” system.
This article will focus on the SNS and PNS. These two portions of the ANS are in a constant balancing act with one another. This balanced activation between the two systems is essential to health and well-being. Fortunately, there are some simple strategies that you can easily implement in your daily life to alter that balance in meaningful ways.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The SNS activates in response to threat or stress and is associated with full body arousal, excitation, and attention. SNS activation helps your body mobilize stored energy, channeling it into systems that allow us to properly handle survival situations. With high SNS activation comes increased blood pressure, increased respiratory rate, dilation of the pupils, increased sweat production, etc. Energy shifts away from processes such as digestion, urination, and cellular repair that are unnecessary in immediate emergencies.
THe Parasympathetic Nervous System
The PNS helps your body to conserve energy and rebuild itself by stimulating the processes of digestion, energy storage, waste elimination, and cellular repair. Through the activity of this system, your body conserves energy and rebuilds itself. You can expect slowed heart rate, slowed breathing, and decreased blood pressure along with increases in digestion, urination, and cellular repair.
Where Problems Arise in the Autonomic Nervous System
There are various clinical conditions of the ANS that fall outside the purview of this article. Beyond these more serious disorders, however, there are also some common sources of imbalance in the ANS that can affect any one of us at different points in our lives. From the discussion above, you now understand that the SNS activates in response to perceived threat or stress. While that response is valuable and adaptive in many situations, it can also become problematic if we experience prolonged stress without adequate periods of relaxation. This is further complicated by our modern lives in which societal pressures often create stress around situations that are not able to be resolved through this physiologic stress response.
The Modern Evolutionary Mismatch
As an example, consider that our ancestors found themselves in life or death scenarios far more frequently than we do today. When facing down a predator or hunting for food to feed their families, the “fight or flight” response of the SNS was essential for survival. In our daily lives, we rarely encounter such situations. Our sources of stress are often things like deadlines, exams, social anxiety, or financial problems. The heightened physiologic state that evolved to deal with direct physical threats is ill-equipped to address these modern stressors. Furthermore, the survival scenarios encountered by our ancestors were typically episodic – the threat was present for a period of time before reaching a clear resolution. Modern stressors are much more often chronically present at some level, with no clear end point.
This mismatch between the daily stress of contemporary life and the evolutionary stress response of the SNS results in many people going about their lives in a constant state of heightened SNS activity. This imbalance can contribute to feelings of anxiety, digestive problems, high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, chronic pain, fatigue, and increased injury risk along with poor recovery. All is not lost! Next, I’ll go through some techniques that you can use to reduce SNS activation and improve your body’s ability to respond to stress.
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How to Shift into a More Parasympathetic State
There are two main pathways that you can leverage to consciously influence the balance between your SNS and PNS. The first is through breathing. The second is through your vision. In this article, I’ll discuss two highly effective techniques that you can easily incorporate into your daily life. There are countless other techniques available and many of them may provide similar benefits.
Autonomic Nervous System Regulation Through Breath
Numerous studies have demonstrated that deep diaphragmatic breathing (read more on the physiology of breathing here) stimulates the vagus nerve in ways that almost instantly shifts the balance in your ANS away from the SNS and toward the PNS. Breathing in this way reduces physiologic biomarkers of stress in the body, increases heart rate variability, and elicits subjective feelings of calm and relaxation.
The physiological sigh is one quick and easy technique that you can use to influence the balance of your ANS. To perform the physiological sigh, simply take two short, deep inhales – one on top of the other – followed by a long slow exhale. This technique produces a measurable reduction of stress hormones in the body. Just 1-3 cycles of this breathing pattern is enough to dramatically shift the balance of your ANS. The video below demonstrates the technique:
To learn more about the science behind this technique, check out the video linked below starting at 24:16.
Autonomic Nervous system Regulation Through Vision
The ability to leverage the visual system to consciously influence your ANS is not as well known as utilizing breath, but the science behind it is solid. It is helpful to work backwards through this one.
When we become stressed and SNS activation increases, it produces changes in our visual system. Our visual field and focus automatically narrow, moving into a kind of tunnel vision. In this state, we become hyper-attentive to particular aspects of our surroundings while ignoring everything else. This adaptation allows us to maintain clear focus on potential threats in the environment without becoming distracted.
The key is that this process also actually works in reverse. So, by intentionally widening your visual field and taking in as much of your surroundings as possible you can actually down-regulate your SNS to create relaxation. This is one reason we find wide open vistas to be relaxing. They naturally cause us to widen our visual field to take in more of the periphery. To use this in your daily life, simply practice looking out at what’s around you, widening your vision as much as possible. Emphasize seeing more of your surroundings, extending to the limits of your peripheral vision. If you can, take a break and step outside or spend time in a wide open space where there is more room to expand your visual attention. You can read more about this here.
You now understand what the autonomic nervous system is, what it does, and how important it is to maintain balance between its sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. The sympathetic nervous system, while valuable for responding to stress and threat, can also negatively impact your health when over-active. By practicing the physiological sigh and widening your visual field throughout the day, you will meaningfully reduce your SNS activation and manage stress at the physiologic level. Andrew Huberman’s podcast (linked in the video above) is a fantastic resource for scientifically supported practical tools for everyday life. I highly recommend checking it out!
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.