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How To Calm An Overactive Sympathetic Nervous System

21 Sep 2023

A young lady breaths through her nose outside after learning how to calm an overactive sympathetic nervous system

Calming The Central Nervous System

Today, more and more people are living in a stressed state while trying to meet the demands of modern life. But did you know that there are ways you can calm your nervous system and avoid unnecessary stress, burnout, and even long-term health issues?

What is the autonomic nervous system?

The first step to calming your nervous system is understanding what it is and how it works. The autonomic nervous system plays a crucial role behind the scenes to keep our bodies ticking. It helps us regulate bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion and the dilation of blood vessels.

It also has two main states: the parasympathetic (calm, relaxed) and sympathetic (stress, fight, flight or freeze). When we feel out of control, it’s the sympathetic system which is governing our body’s reactions. It releases high levels of adrenaline, increases the heart rate and the speed of breath, diverting blood to where it’s urgently needed – essentially preparing you to immediately face danger.

If the sympathetic system becomes overactive it may actually be damaging to the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s like driving a car fast all the time and therefore, having to stop hard all the time, thus wearing out the brakes faster. This can put you at a higher risk of cardiovascular conditions, anxiety and chronic inflammation.

Luckily, there are some practical ways you can calm your sympathetic nervous system and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.

1) Stop mouth breathing

The natural response to stress is to ‘mouth breathe’ up into our chest. The quickest way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is simply breathing through the nose. Think about moving the breath through the nose and putting the handbrake on - slow it down. Then try to elongate your exhalation through the nose.

2) Take a physiological sigh

Another technique to try when stress takes over is the physiological sigh. Take two consecutive breaths in through the nose and a long exhalation out of the mouth to empty the lungs. Repeat 2-3 times. It’s one of the quickest ways to calm your nervous system and a great tool if you’re already in a stressed state. Toddlers even do it automatically to recalibrate themselves!

3) Try cold exposure therapy

When you’re in a stressed state it’s harder to think clearly and take action, so it’s important to practise these techniques when you’re calm, so it’s harder for you to get triggered into a stressed state. Mental fitness is a practice just like physical fitness - you have to be doing it consistently and building up your skill level so you can access those skills when needed.

One of the best things for this is cold exposure therapy, which increases the threshold of your sympathetic nervous system. This threshold is the point when you’re triggered into the stress state, and is dictated by past experiences, past trauma, and your environment. You can increase your threshold by going into a controlled discomfort - very cold water - and repeating it over time to get accustomed to the discomfort. It’s training your sympathetic nervous system to not get triggered at the little things.

4) Practising cold exposure therapy at home

Start by turning your shower to cold at the end of every shower for at least 10 seconds, breathe your way out of the discomfort and then slowly build on it over time. How cold should the water be? Choose whatever temperature sets off your sympathetic nervous system - it’s different for everyone so don’t force it. It’s like running - you wouldn’t jump into a marathon - it’s about building up the skill over time.

One of the first things you need to do if you start hyperventilating from the cold is shut your mouth and breathe through your nose. There is no set time it’ll take to get back to a calm state, so tune into your own body and you’ll know when you feel calm and regulated again.

Practice these tips regularly to train your parasympathetic nervous system and make small steps towards living a calmer and healthier life.