The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are two of three main subsidies of the autonomous nervous system which is a part of the peripheral nervous. The two systems control automatic functions like your breath, digestion, and your heartbeat. Naturally, our bodies cycle through these two systems every 1-4 hours. This tends not to be the case though due to our environment and society, which then creates an imbalance within the body. This is where we can use the principles and practice of yoga to aid in harmonizing these two energies.
Before we get into how to hack the nervous system for a more balanced life, let’s discover what exactly the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system do.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
Whenever we face stressful situations—either with something as small as a deadline or something as big as a tiger—we go into what I like to call “superhero” mode, a physical stress response that prepares us to either fight or flight the situation. If you’ve ever heard of mothers lifting cars off their children in accidents or hikers losing a limb and waiting multiple hours until medical help, are very extreme examples of what an amazing job our sympathetic nervous system does for us. It literally gives us superhero powers! However, if unharmonized or unbalanced (which is very common in today’s society), it can result in some serious complications.
When our fight or flight response kicks in, a whole slew of processes kick into high gear in order to allow us to make the quick internal adjustments necessary to react without thinking about it. The sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) signals a flash flood of hormones to boost the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. The breath quickens, and glucose is stolen from various places of the body and pumped into the bloodstream. This reaction happens so quickly that sometimes you don’t even notice it’s happened!
As the danger goes away, our sympathetic nervous system unfortunately doesn’t destress the body. The processes it’s kick-started ramp down but still continue to work in unnecessary overtime. This is when our parasympathetic nervous system needs to take over, so we can go into a “rest and digest” mode to recover and heal from the trauma and stress of the negative situation.
The sympathetic nervous system is fantastic when used for short bursts. It’s extremely useful and an important biological factor to our evolutionary success. When the system is overworked and prolonged, the increase of stress to the body (both mentally, physically, and emotionally) wreaks absolute havoc. And it’s easy to understand why.
The SNS Isn’t Always Good! Here’s Why:
An overactive SNS (scientifically dubbed sympathetic dysfunction) is either a result of multiple diseases or is associated/the cause multiple diseases, these include:
- chronic heart failure, hypertension, and other ailments
- kidney disease
- type II diabetes
- metabolic syndrom
- Parkinson’s disease (the autonomic symptoms of this disease appear long before the motor symptoms do)
Sympathetic dysfunction is also underlying mental health conditions as well such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress or pain. In order to counteract sympathetic dysfunction or prolonged activation, one must attempt to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This can be done multiple ways. The cool thing about doing the work to stop the sympathetic nervous system from going into overdrive is that even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything is happening, it’s super beneficial to try just for 5 minutes. It’s kind of like putting your money into a high interest savings account, as you put some work in the effects and benefits begin piling up.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is our “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” response. It’s job is to undue the work of the sympathetic nervous system and is very vital to a balanced life. It stimulates the autonomous activities related to rest, eating, and breeding.
An overactive PSNS contributes to lethargy, loss of normal motivation, and depression. Although the opposite tends to be the case (sympathetic on, parasympathetic off), you can turn off the PSNS by activating the SNS through high intensity exercise and adrenaline-inducing activities.
So how can I keep these two nervous systems healthy and in balance?
I have made it super easy for you, I’ve compiled a bunch of great resources in my post on How to “Hack” the Nervous System for a Balanced, Harmonized Life for tips and tricks to activate these two nervous systems. You’ll find themed yoga practices, meditations, meals, and more! Check it out here.