43 Techniques to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System and Lower Stress
Do you have a sensitive nervous system and struggle getting control of your hypervigilance and reactivity to triggers? You can get relief by learning to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
If you want to learn more about the signs of dysregulation, you can find them here.
In this article we’ll break down 43 techniques to calm yourself by activating your parasympathetic nervous system and putting the body into “rest and digest”. These techniques can be done from your own home or with the help of a professional.
What are the best techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and lower stress?
Some of the most common techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system are those that activate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve starts in the brain and goes through the neck, chest, and abdomen.
You may lower stress and activate the parasympathetic nervous system by trying out these activities and seeing which ones help to calm you. Some may find comfort in a hot sauna, others may prefer breathwork. Slowing down enough to enter the parasympathetic state isn’t complicated. This article should provide you with various techniques on how to calm your nervous system, and engage in parasympathetic activation at home.
Acupuncture is one of the oldest therapeutic methods in the world, and its positive health effects have been appreciated to this day. This procedure has the ability to stimulate the vagus nerve and other key areas of the nervous system, and to increase the release of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps to decrease inflammation and increase immune system functioning. The act of getting acupuncture itself is relaxing and meditative.
2. Ear seeds
Ear seeds are actual or synthetic seeds or similar small objects that are being used to stimulate pressure points in the ear. Each point is related to a different part of the body. When vagus nerve stimulation devices are applied to a particular area of the ear, they are shown to reduce inflammation and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is technically a needle-free form of acupuncture called “auricular acupuncture.”
3. Nature therapy
Nature therapy, or “forest bathing”, as the Japanese have coined it, can help the body achieve physiological relaxation. How? By simply immersing yourself in nature. Forest bathing is based on mindful, calm walks in the forest, which gives you an opportunity to experience the surroundings with all of your senses. It has been proven to lower cortisol levels and blood pressure in as little as a 15-minute walk through the forest.
Breathwork is a powerful tool that can help activate the vagus nerve simply by taking deep breaths. This can help to decrease anxiety and boost your nervous system. There are a wide variety of breathing techniques that can be beneficial to your health. Here are some of them:
- Focus on your deep breaths and mindfully follow the air that you breathe in and out through your nose, lungs, and belly.
- Take six deep breaths from the diaphragm in the span of one minute. Long and slow exhales are important.
- Inhale very slowly through your nose, counting to 5, exhale slowly through your nose, counting to 5. Wait 5 seconds and repeat the process 3 more times.
5. Get a massage
Massage can help the body and mind relax by helping the body shift into a parasympathetic state. It can also help release anti-inflammatory neurochemistry into the body. Massage induces relaxation and eases the stress response. It helps to release the tension in the body, which is very often the result of stress. Professional massage is usually offered in a cosy room with a harmonious atmosphere, which makes it easier for the body and mind to relax.
6. Take a hot bath
Studies have shown that immersing oneself in 102F/38C water can reduce the sympathetic nervous system response, calming the body with heat. Adding epsom salt can increase magnesium levels, inducing relaxation. To make the bath even more relaxing, you can add some bath essential oil and put on your favorite soothing music. This way, you will engage more senses in this relaxing process.
7. Put on relaxing music
Music can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system by helping relax the mind. Listening to sedative music decreases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate. There are specific musical frequencies that are shown to have more benefits than others. Some studies show that listening to music at a frequency of 432 Hz is more calming for our bodies and minds than one of 440 Hz, which is the frequency that most modern day music is tuned at.
8. Cuddle a human/pet
Cuddling someone you love can activate the parasympathetic nervous system; it releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Oxytocin, specifically, is the love and bonding chemical. When you have a loved one by your side, remember to give them a nice cuddle once in a while and see how it makes you feel. Living with a pet? They love cuddling too! Pets really are therapeutic and can help reduce stress or stimulate happiness hormones.
9. Do absolutely nothing
Doing nothing is beneficial for your nervous system because it allows you time to process your thoughts and feelings and then release them. If it is hard for you to do nothing, start with just 2 minutes of your time. Don’t look at your phone, eat, or distract yourself at all! At first, it might be frustrating and your mind will try to make you distracted by anything around you—your phone, TV, or all the thoughts you will be having—but that’s normal—this is the way our busy minds work.
Try to simply observe what is happening in your mind and still do nothing. You will see that it’s harder than it seems, but remember – this is the time your nervous system is finally not triggered by any external stimuli and can calm down.
Studies on aromatherapy have shown that it has the ability to create homeostasis in the nervous system and reduce anxiety. Bergamot and lavender specifically have been shown to have beneficial effects on stress reduction. You can smell them, diffuse them, or even find a perfume with their scents! If you happen to have essential oils such as e.g. lavender, valerian, bergamot, patchouli, marjoram, or rose, you can simply add them to your bath and enjoy their relaxing effects. Some of them can also be added to massage oil.
11. Listening to the birds
Birds chirp in the absence of predators. Their chirping may induce a relaxing state in your nervous system due to the fact that it signals an absence of danger. Birds’ chirping is also a part of the contact with nature, which has a calming effect on our nervous system. Imagine lying on a green meadow on a sunny, warm day where the only thing you can hear is the birds singing. Sounds relaxing?
Any hobbies that bring you peace or joy have the ability to bring you to a calm state. Gardening is a great hobby because it gets you into nature and sunshine at the same time, which are both proven to relax us. Apart from that, it gives you an opportunity to limit the stressors around you (it’s hard to plant the flowers in the garden and argue with your boss on the phone) and to focus on this one, calming activity.
13. Sunshine exposure
The bright colors of the sun have the ability to calm your nerves. They also help to regulate the circadian rhythm through melatonin production and lower cortisol levels. While being in the sunshine, the number of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, increases, which has positive results for our well-being.
15-minute stints in the sauna have been shown to lower cortisol levels and induce the parasympathetic nervous system. The heat from the sauna is beneficial for many different health concerns. If you’re new to saunas, start with 5 minutes and gradually increase the time. Remember to stay hydrated—drink plenty of water in between sauna sessions—in order to make this experience healthy and beneficial for you.
15. Feet on the earth
Grounding allows us to absorb the negative ions from the earth, which act as antioxidants. It has been shown that when our feet are on the ground, the muscles begin to relax, causing a shift into the parasympathetic nervous system state. The earth releases negative ions that go into our bodies, creating a positive effect. There are plenty of positive effects of grounding, such as improved sleep, reduced inflammation, enhanced blood flow, or even improved tissue and cell repair!
16. Hug a loved one
A simple touch can stimulate the nerve endings that connect to the vagus nerve. As mentioned before, oxytocin is released when you are hugging someone that you love, which helps to calm your nerves. It also helps you feel safe emotionally, which has a significant impact on the level of stress you are dealing with.
Sewing has the ability to put us into the flow state. Sewing forces one to focus on the task at hand and allows hand-eye coordination to induce focus. Sewing is something that takes concentration away from the stress of day-to-day life! It also keeps you away from your daily distractions like the phone, TV, or work, which are very often common sources of stress. It can also bring you extra satisfaction if you end up sewing yourself a new t-shirt.
Meditation has been proven to improve stress and anxiety. It can help reduce the responsiveness to stresses that aren’t under our control. There are many studies that show the positive effects of various meditation techniques or approaches, such as, e.g. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Meditation helps to manage any triggers, breath, decrease heart and blood pressure, muscles’ lactic acid, or even deal with pain. It improves sleep, lowers stress and can help with strong, difficult emotions. You can try different meditation methods and choose those that work best for you.
Scientists have proven that yawning is something that signals the parasympathetic system to activate, which results in stress reduction and lowers the risk of high blood pressure. If you practice yawning, you can intentionally put your body into this rest and digest state with a simple yawn.
Creating art is an easy way to induce the parasympathetic state because you are able to focus on the thing that you are creating. Drawing, doodling, painting or sculpting may activate the parasympathetic nervous system as it has the ability to bring peace and joy to a person. It can feel restorative and fulfilling to energy levels. Drawing, or any other type of art, can also be a way to express yourself and all the emotions you carry around. Feeling angry, stressed, sad, excited? Take a pen and release your emotions on paper. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, just start sketching!
Reaading has the ability to put you into the parasympathetic state through engagement. Reading allows us to focus on one thing and forget about our stress. Reading before bed can help relax us and prepare us for sleep. There is an endless choice of books you can read and that can help you feel more relaxed in different ways. A good comedy will make you laugh; an addictive novel will transport you to another world; an informative book will teach you something new about a fascinating subject — these are just a few examples of how reading can positively influence your nervous system.
Studies have shown that the parasympathetic state engages during prayer while the sympathetic state decreases. This puts a person into rest and digest mode, lowering anxiety and cardiovascular risk. We usually pray in a quiet place or surrounded by other prayers. In both situations, we have an opportunity to focus only on this activity and we are not distracted by anything else. This can take us away from fight or flight mode and calm our minds.
Qigong is a health exercise method initiated in ancient China that has been approved as a healing technique by the Chinese government. It activates the flow state through breath, proper posture, and mental focus. There are various types of Qigong, but all of them are meant to put you in a state of natural harmony and support your well-being. The easiest way to achieve it is to breathe in for four counts, and breath out for six counts. If you are deeply focused, you can get into this state in about five minutes.
24. Playing music in group
Music therapy has been shown to induce the parasympathetic response. The internal structure of music has this ability. It is possible to do this through playing music, or even just listening. Playing in a group, however, creates a sense of community and can become a source of satisfaction. If you have the chance to start playing some instruments, give it a try! Maybe you will discover a new passion that will support your nervous system.
Calming visualizations have the ability to help the parasympathetic state engage, by helping the body feel like it is actually happening in reality. You can use your past memories to move in your imagination to the places where you used to feel relaxed and calm. If you can imagine yourself on a sunny beach, your mind may trick you into feeling like you are actually there! Just find a quiet, comfortable place, close your eyes and discover the power of your imagination. Give yourself some time. You might be surprised at how relaxing it might feel.
When you find your mind wandering, you can use mantras to bring your brain back to reality. This helps to create safety and calmness in the body. You could repeat “I am safe”, over and over, for a positive effect. Mantras have been shown to have a calming effect on our nervous system. One of the most well-known mantras – OM mantra – has a frequency of 432 Hz, which slows down the nervous system, calms the mind and makes it easier to stay mindful.
Stretching has the ability to increase blood flow, and dilates blood vessels to the muscle. As we already know, we can affect our minds through our bodies, and stretching is a good example of that. Stress is often accumulated in our bodies. Thanks to stretching exercises, we can release all the tension. This mechanism helps the body relax into the parasympathetic state.
28. Touch your lips gently
Your lips have parasympathetic fibers running through them which can be stimulated by running your finger over your lips! Also, it has been proven that our mouth can put us in a better mood. How? Try to take a pen and put it horizontally in your mouth so it automatically looks like you are smiling. Studies show that your brain will recognize it as a smile and adjust your mood accordingly. Try this out when you are feeling stressed or anxious.
Yoga can activate the parasympathetic nervous system by improving fight or flight response. People who practice yoga tend to feel a release in tension. This may be due to the recognition of the tension quicker in the body. Like other physical activities, yoga has a positive effect on our bodies and minds. However, yoga is not only the art of doing asanas. Pranayamas are very beneficial breathing techniques that help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and feel more relaxed. If you are new to yoga and pranayama, it’s best to start practising them under the supervision of an experienced teacher.
30. Sufficient sleep
Sufficient sleep is important for a number of health reasons, as it helps your body rest and recover. During sleep, circulation in the blood is increased, as well as oxygen and nutrients. Our minds and senses are not triggered anymore and we can finally rest. An adequate amount of sleep is fundamental for our nervous system to work correctly. Remind yourself how you feel after a sleepless night. I suppose there is no need to convince you of the importance of getting enough sleep.
31. Singing in a chorus
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chord and the muscles that are at the back of your throat. This means that singing, chanting, humming, or gargling all have the ability to put you into rest and digest mode! It can activate your vagus nerve and positively influence your mind whether you prefer to sing in the shower or join the chorus.
32. Vagus nerve stimulation device
A vagus nerve stimulation device stimulates the vagus nerve with electrical impulses and increases specific neurotransmitters in the brain. This increases vagus nerve functioning. It’s beneficial for people who suffer from strong epilepsy, depression, or pain. There are various devices available, and there will be more as research on them continues to grow.
33. Laughing therapy
Laughing therapy has a positive and stimulating effect on the vagus nerve. The happy and positive emotions that come from socializing improve the vagal tone. Laughter is also a great remedy for stressful situations. Sometimes, releasing the tension with a funny joke can save you from getting overstressed or acting inappropriately. Watch a funny video on Youtube or a good comedy, and see how your mood changes!
34. Outdoor play with others
Nature therapy has already been proven to be an effective tool in lowering the stress response and inducing a parasympathetic state. Playing with others creates a sense of camaraderie and helps calm our nervous system. Thanks to outdoor activities, you get a lot of fresh air and increase your endorphin level.
35. Valsalva Maneuver
Exhale against a closed airway by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. It increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity thereby stimulating your vagus nerve. This method can be used for many different purposes, e.g., to normalize middle ear pressure, for cardiological diagnosis, for strength training, or the regulation of heart rhythm.
36. Cultivate healthy intestinal bacteria, use probiotics
Fermented foods are full of probiotic bacteria. They support absorption of B vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins and folic acid and play a large role in immunity. Research on healthy probiotic flora have also been linked to mental and emotional health. There are more and more studies that show that correlation, which means that we can take care of our mental health by delivering probiotic bacteria to our intestines.
37. Watching sunset/sunrise
Watching the sunset or the sunrise allows us to help the circadian rhythm regulate. Sun exposure first thing in the morning can lower the cortisol response, and allow for better sleep at night. It can also help you to appreciate the small things in life, as it is a simple pleasure. You can combine it with some small rituals like morning exercises, meditation, or a nice cup of tea just to give yourself some time to mindfully experience these simple pleasures.
38. Listening to music specific frequencies
As mentioned above, there are specific music frequencies that emit a healing frequency that has a positive effect on the nervous system. There are a variety of benefits of different hertz, from 40 all the way up to 528 hertz. 40 for example helps memory and cognition, while 528 helps with love and goodwill. You can find the full list of the frequencies and their effects on the internet and see how they work for you.
How about a concert of Tibetan singing bowls? Only a few scientific studies have been conducted to investigate their potential benefits, but some of them show that the sound of the bowls helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve sleep.
39. Watching fractals
Fractals are geometric figures which contain similar repeating patterns. They exist all around us – in nature, art, architecture. Studies show that we can reduce our stress levels and induce a relaxation response simply by watching the patterns. They have been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system due to their hypnotic state.
Non-Sleep Deep Rest is a practice that puts you in a dreamy, semi-focused, calm state where you can recharge your batteries and feel more energized afterward. It is something you can experience through hypnosis or yoga nidra, which is a form of sleeping yoga. Thanks to the guidance of structured meditation, you can achieve a state of deep rest without falling asleep. This allows your brain to slip into a hypnotic state, which then triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to engage.
41. Proprioceptive stimulation
Proprioceptive stimulation is the body’s ability to locate the position in space as the body moves, think pressure receptors. It can be stimulated with weightbearing (push-ups, crawling), resistance activities (pushing, pulling), heaving lifting, cardiovascular (running, jumping), oral (chewing), and deep pressure (hugs!). Bear in mind that whatever of these activities you do is beneficial not only for your body but also for your nervous system.
42. Proper Nutrition
It is important to support the nervous system through a balance of protein, minerals, and nutrients. It may be beneficial to reduce caffeine and sugar intake as well since they are stimulants. Make sure you are eating enough nutrient dense food, to help your body function! When you take care of yourself physically, it is much more likely that your brain and nervous system will work in a balanced and healthy way.
Gratitude is a free practice that anyone can engage in. When you practice gratitude you are working with the parasympathetic nervous system to create resilience and to offset stress. Start your morning or finish your day with a list of things you are grateful for. If you practice gratitude regularly, you might notice a positive change in your approach to everyday challenges. It will be easier for you to focus on the positive sides of the situation instead of the problems, which will result in less stress and anxiety.
You have now learned how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system with our list of suggestions. Sewing may not be for everyone, nor may be acupuncture, but everyone can find something suitable for themselves.
Studies show more and more evidence of how different daily activities can significantly affect our bodies and minds. Stress is an integral part of our lives nowadays, and it has a massive impact on our physical and mental health. Once we realize that, it is important to help our nervous system deal with it, which can be achieved by taking some of these simple steps described in this article. Hopefully, the tools provided can guide you towards some calming vagus nerve exercises, and you can be on your journey to healing! Your body and mind will thank you for that with a good and healthy condition.
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Dr. Linnea Passaler
Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.