Activate Parasympathetic Nervous System To Calm Anxiety

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Activate parasympathetic nervous system is key to calming anxiety. Read on to learn more. 

If you’ve been anxious or stressed for a long time, you’ve probably got an imbalance in your nervous system.  Your autonomic nervous system has a couple of skills, getting activated, and relaxing. 

Just like this guy, who’s been working out his right arm more than his left, when we constantly get anxious or stressed, we are stronger at activating than we are at calming down. We’re just really good at getting anxious, and not so good at relaxing. Our parasympathetic response isn’t as strong. 

The good news is that there are practical things you can do to turn on and strengthen your parasympathetic response. In this video you’ll learn how to activate the parasympathetic response, and how to strengthen your vagal tone- which is your body’s overall ability to regulate your nervous system and return to a sense of calm. 

Three Responses Of Your Nervous System

Your nervous system has three responses – the Sympathetic response- which is activating, alerting, it’s been called the FFF response, it’s meant to prepare you to respond to danger. The Dorsal vagal response- which is the shutdown response, it’s meant to conserve energy and numb you, protect you from hurt. And the ventral vagal response- the parasympathetic response, the internal sense of safety, where you feel secure, that you can connect with others, heal, rest and digest, love and be loved, relax and restore.  But each of these responses, imagine them as being like a muscle, the response that you use the most gets stronger, so if you’re anxious a lot, you’re constantly strengthening your activating response. And if you exercise your parasympathetic response a lot, it gets a lot stronger.

Let's Break It Down

OK, so let’s break it down: The vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs from your brain through your neck and into your abdomen. It’s one of the most important nerves in your body, controlling many functions, including heart rate and digestion.

Vagal tone is like muscle tone, your vagal tone is the activity level of the vagus nerve. Higher vagal tone means that the vagus nerve is more active. It’s generally associated with better health and well-being. For instance, high vagal tone is linked with better mood, lower stress, and a more efficient heart. And low vagal tone is often found in people with depression, anxiety, and other stress-related disorders.

You can actually measure the strength of your vagal tone with HRV (Heart Rate Variability): This refers to the variations in time between successive heartbeats. It’s not about how fast your heart beats, but how much the duration between each beat changes. Surprisingly, a more variable heart rate (within a healthy range) is a good thing! High HRV indicates that your body is responsive and can adapt to different situations. Low HRV suggests the opposite – that your body might be under stress or not functioning optimally.

In essence, both vagal tone and HRV are measures of how well your body responds to stress and recovers from it. High vagal tone and high HRV are generally seen as signs of good health and resilience.

Assuming that if you have anxiety, you’re already good at getting activated, (that one muscle is bigger than the other, Each time we activate the parasympathetic response, we strengthen our vagal tone. 

Activate Parasympathetic Nervous System To Calm Anxiety

So let’s talk about how to turn on that parasympathetic response. Just as the anxiety response is in your body and gets triggered by thoughts, sights, places, people, the parasympathetic, the calming, relaxing, soothing part of your nervous system can also get turned on, can get triggered, (or a better word is glimmered) by all kinds of things. 

Anything that makes us feel safe, confident, secure, or supported can help turn on that parasympathetic response. Whether that’s a belief like “I can do hard things” or “God will protect me” or something more physical like a warm hug from a loved one, or the snuggles from your dog, or even just returning home after a long day out, these signals can cue the parasympathetic response to turn on. 

But there’s also a lot you can do to actively turn on and exercise the parasympathetic response. 


The first thing I would say about the parasympathetic response is that it’s strongest when you face your fears. We aren’t just trying to “Feel calm” all the time, this leads to avoiding anxiety. You have to go through the event, instead of avoid and immobilize.

You have to honestly face reality, and laugh in its face. 

Yes. things are hard, stressful, frightening, difficult.

But you can do hard things. You have a built-in, inherent ability to face challenges and be healthy while you do them. 

But this is as much in our body as in our mind. 

So when we move through a stressor, overcome it, come out the other side. When we complete a task instead of freezing up, that’s when our natural, built in ability to rest, relax, heal and connect naturally turns on. 

So just think of that time you were scared to jump off the diving board, and you did it, and that huge smile that came on your face afterwards. Or when you finally finished exams in school, that huge sense of relief, this is the parasympathetic response. But we don’t have to wait for some huge event to turn it on, later in this section we’ll learn about how it can be turned on, even in the middle of stressful events, but first let’s learn simple ways to turn on that parasympathetic response. 

Stuff that turns on the parasympathetic response:

Laugh- .  Laughter is essentially a tension breaker- notice how a lot of humor builds tension around a tricky subject and then releases it with a joke. Notice how pranks increase a sense of danger and then release all that tension with a bunch of laughter. Laughter really is a powerful medicine, during a very stressful time in my family, watching instagram reels together saved our relationships.

Breathing– this one is well known, and you’ll see your body naturally let out a long breath when things are safe. But you can practice paced breathing, slow breathing, or deep breathing to turn on or strengthen your PS response. This is the one I use the most throughout the day, pause, take a slow breath, go back to what I was doing. 

Let’s practice with a quick exercise, go ahead and fake yawn with me. The body can send a message to the mind to calm down. 

And on that note, Humming, singing, chanting, gargling, all of these are anciently known to help turn on that PS response and one reason is because the vocal cord vibration stimulates the vagus nerve. Foghorn Breath. I mean, just think- why do people sing songs when they’re happy? But also when they’re sad? It’s a form of nervous system regulation. 

Chewing gum can also help open up your jaws and the back of your throat, and stimulate salivation which is a form of the PS response, eating sour things also stimulates salivation.  

Shake it off- Wild animals literally shake after a stressful event to burn off all those stress hormones. But we can channel it through Dance, or just big body movements.  

Any kind of movement- can help transition from immobilization (hypoarousal) into activation and then towards the parasympathetic response. Stuff like running, yoga, or exercise, this is essential if you’re stuck in a frozen state. You have to move up the polyvagal ladder into activation before you can get to safety. 

OK what else? 

The other exercise I do the most throughout the day is a simple tense and relax. It can be hard to intentionally relax your muscles, so it’s easier if you just gently tighten one area and then allow it to soften. And those soft muscles send a message to your brain to turn on the relaxation response. 

Crying– expresses and releases emotion and seeks connection which is a hallmark of the PS state

Connection– Any kind of human contact is really powerful at turning on the PS response. Deep long hugs, try to get 8 of them that last 8 seconds a day, eye contact, seeing people face to face. This is one reason the pandemic was so stressful for people, and so is shame, you stop connecting with people and your nervous system interprets that as a threat.  This is also one reason why sex is so powerful, it turns on a mixed state- both active and relaxed at the same time, and it can be a powerful form of healing, but when lonely people are desperate for connection, they may seek that nervous system regulation through unhealthy forms of sex. 

Sharing a meal with friends. The parasympathetic response is known as Rest and Digest. Eating is a powerful form of safety, that 2-way communication from the body to the mind. But that can go awry if we are constantly eating to soothe ourselves. So instead, use mindful eating, eat a bit more slowly, mono-task while eating, savor your food, and enjoy a meal with friends. 

Anything that reminds you that you are safe, you are capable and you are supported helps your nervous system soothe. 

Getting in touch with nature can help turn on the PS response. Some people like “earthing” putting your bare feet into the earth, but even a walk through the woods or watching nature documentaries can help. 

I’ll just list a few more. 

Meditative practice



Remind yourself “I am safe enough right now”. 

Grounding skills, getting present

Routines for “turning off work” it’s not stress that harms us, but chronic stress. It’s ok to get activated, but to be able to return to a sense of calm determines our health. I knew a therapist who had a ritual every day after work to turn over work to their higher power as they drove home each day. Or just changing clothes, taking your work email off your phone, etc, can be helpful to distinguish between ON time and OFF time.  

In addition to stuff that is calming, which does strengthen vagal tone, we can also stretch our ability to respond to stressors by strengthening our nervous system resilience. This is Wim Hof Stuff, this is putting some stress on our body, within our growth zone. It includes things like

Cold water exposure-This is like Wim hof stuff

Hot exposure– saunas (please do both of these with medical support) 

Physical exercise– this helps the body work through natural cycles of activation and rest.

Breathwork- types of breathing that stress the system

Training and drills- so an emergency responder can handle a pretty stressful situation with a lot of calm because they feel skilled and competent due to their training. You can build out systems for yourself to handle difficult situations, they often use acronyms to remind themselves to work through the steps. So when I was training to be a wilderness first responder, we’d use all sorts of acronyms like ABCDE to keep calm and work through the steps. SIFT is an acronym reminding people to check in with their sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, HALT reminds people to never make a big decision when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Maybe you can make yourself a little acronym for what to do when you feel stressed- Find your Breathe, Allow your sensations, Remember to soften, and To Hug someone. FART – a good acronym should be easy to remember. 

The more you practice this stuff, the better you’ll get at strengthening your parasympathetic response. 

OK, so there’s a bunch of ways you can turn on your rest and digest response, the parasympathetic response in your nervous system.

This is Day 22 of my online course,  Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days. In the rest of this section, we’ll continue to learn how to regulate our nervous system and respond to our body’s sensations of anxiety, thanks for being here!

Click below to check out the course. 

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