Parasympathetic Nervous System: Rest & Digest
Stress and anxiety trigger the ‘fight-or-flight response’ in our bodies, a survival mechanism controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. This response is designed to help us face danger for a few minutes at a time. However, when it remains active for extended periods, we experience symptoms like irritability, restlessness, tiredness, and depression.
Interestingly, our bodies respond to perceived danger in the same way they would to real danger. For example, if we fear failing a test, our bodies respond to it as if we’re facing a dangerous situation, such as a dog chasing us. This means that our bodies need to be convinced that we’re not in danger to stop the response. To do this, we need to activate the ‘rest-and-digest response,’ controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.
Activating the Rest-and-Digest nervous system
The question most people ask is, “How do I turn off the fight-or-flight response?” However, a more effective question is, “How do I turn ON the rest-and-digest response?” It’s easier to follow positive instructions like “DO think about a green cat” than negative instructions like “DON’T think about a purple elephant.” Therefore, instead of trying to turn off the sympathetic nervous system, we should focus on turning on the parasympathetic nervous system. The good news is that activating the rest-and-digest response turns off the fight-or-flight response.
Belly-breathing is the ON switch for calmness
Controlling your breath is the easiest way to activate the rest-and-digest response. Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing, triggers the relaxation response. The technique involves breathing deeply and slowly while focusing on your belly rising and falling.
To practice belly breathing, lie down with a pillow under your knees and place your hands on your belly. Inhale slowly and deeply, allowing your belly to rise, then hold your breath for a moment. Exhale slowly, letting your belly fall. You can also visualize bellows pointing upwards and inhaling through your nose (the “entrance for air” in the image) while expanding your belly like the bellows (the part where your hands expand outward to pull air in). Exhale through your mouth (the “nozzle” in this image) while contracting your belly (In the picture below, this would be like bringing your hands together at the bottom of the bellows to push air out).
There are many types of relaxing breathing exercises. I explain the 3 most common in the “How to Relax and Unwind” blog post. A simple breathing exercise that does not involve any counting is:
- Breathe in slowly for a few seconds (your belly rises)
- Pause for a moment
- Exhale slowly for a few seconds (your belly falls)
- Pause for a moment
- Repeat this for 3-5 minutes.
When we start counting how long the inhales, pauses and exhales are, we are beginning to access deeper levels of relaxation.
The physiological sigh
Based on the work of neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, the physiological sigh simply adds a quick 2nd inhale immediately after the initial inhale. According to Dr. Huberman, this helps ensure that the tiny air sacs in the lungs become more inflated to help bring in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.
Athletes, yoga practitioners, and martial artists commonly use belly breathing to calm their minds and bodies. By using this technique, you signal to your brain that all is well, which slows down your brainwaves and releases calming chemicals to help you relax. With practice, belly breathing can help alleviate anxiety and improve sleep quality, so don’t give up!
*Updated July 13, 2023
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Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.