Your nervous system is a super complex network of nerves and specialized cells that governs your movements and takes in sensory information so you can interact with your world. It's constantly transmitting messages to and from your brain.
At one point, doctors and scientists believed that we had little or no control over this system, kind of like breathing or the beat of a heart. It just functions.
But, you actually can activate the part of your nervous system that is responsible for resting and regeneration, and that is how you can prevent most chronic issues caused too much stress.
A Quick Overview of Your Nervous System
The nervous system is made up of a whole bunch of systems, each responsible for a particular job within your body. It's like a hierarchy of systems and at the very top are two components: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Your central nervous system is made up of your brain and spinal cord and is primarily responsible for coordinating all activity in your body. The peripheral nervous system, includes nerves and groups of neurons, is divided into two parts: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is then broken down into three parts (see, it is a super complex system!): the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and enteric nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that gets activated when you're stressed or experiencing trauma (the "fight or flight" response). Finally, we get to the good stuff: the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "rest and digest" response.
Your Built-in Resilience
The parasympathetic nervous system resets organ function after the sympathetic nervous system is activated (the adrenaline dump you feel after a "fight-or-flight" event). Effects include slowing of heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and stimulation of digestion, all of which helps your body return to homeostasis (a state of balance in the body). This is the power of your parasympathetic nervous system.
Studies show that the more you can activate your rest and digest response, the more resilient your body gets in dealing with stressors.
Ideally, your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are meant to function in balance to keep you safe and help you recover from stressful events. Unfortunately, in our "always on" society, we tend to run our sympathetic nervous system ragged. The good news is you can learn how to active your parasympathetic nervous system to build up your resilience muscle.
How to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
The easiest and fastest way to activate your built-in resilience system is by breathing but not just any breathing. You need to breathe from your diaphragm or abdominal. To do this, simply put one hand on your belly and breath in. You should feel your belly rise against your hand and when you exhale your belly will fall.
The other thing I do when I'm stressed is to breathe using the 4-6-8 method. This will immediately calm down my mind. Try it:
Do this twice and return to your normal breathing pattern.
You can also try my guided breathing meditation. Meditation is a great way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. We could all use more rest and restoration in my opinion!