While we want to take better care of ourselves, we may struggle to find the time as we juggle the many commitments we have to our family, work, friends, and community. We often press on, sometimes even balk at the concept of self care, and cast aside the voice inside of us that is trying to communicate the body’s need for respite. We vigorously strong-arm our way through the day, and what inevitably ensues is a massive feeling of overwhelm, exhaustion, and burn out.
In order to gain more control over our state of stress to prevent burn out (or more technically termed, “allostatic overload”),¹ and prevent chronic conditions, we should strive to be in a parasympathetic-dominant state as much as possible. While the sympathetic division of the nervous system is engaged during the stress response, the parasympathetic division, on the other hand, is the state of relaxation and calm in the body that restores balance and homeostasis.²
In many ways, a shift in perspective and a willingness to find more space mentally for our own care and nurture is important, and it is not necessarily about finding more time. These five simple solutions below can help ease tension, enter and remain in a parasympathetic state, and thereby lower stress hormones.
1. Set the tone for the day. After you wake up, go outside and gaze at the morning sky for several minutes and take 10 deep, full breaths. If you like to enjoy a hot beverage in the morning, take that with you and sip it slowly, savoring each sip, while continuing to breathe deeply.
When you gaze at the sky, fix your eyes on the sky and not on the direct sun itself. By having morning light enter our naked eye, it helps us reestablish our circadian rhythm, also known as our pattern of wake and sleep.³ In addition, connecting with the outdoors and nature can bring us a sense of peace, calm, and benefit our energy levels.⁴
By taking deep breaths, we engage the diaphragm, the organ that separates the chest from the abdomen, and helps to create a vacuum affect when we inhale. When we activate the diaphragm, it helps to bring us into a parasympathetic-dominant state.⁵ In fact, it is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system which runs from the neck to the abdomen, that is stimulated during deep breathing. This stimulation interrupts the “fight or flight response” and helps to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones.⁶
2. Gratitude. Before meals, recall three things you are grateful for. The effect of gratitude is well-documented in protecting people from stress and depression, as well as promoting a sense of happiness and well-being.⁷
By expressing gratitude before meals, it helps the body to be in a parasympathetic-dominant state. The vagus nerve communicates with the enteric nervous system, which spans the digestive system. When the body is in a parasympathetic dominant state, it can then metabolize and digest food properly. Afterall, the parasympathetic dominant state is known as “rest and digest” mode.⁸ ⁹
Those who are grateful often have fewer aches and pains, report feeling healthier, and are more likely to take care of their physical health by getting checkups and exercise regularly. Those who wrote down a few things that they are grateful for before bed were shown to have better and longer sleep.¹⁰
3. Laughter. Laugh throughout the day. Listen to funny radio or podcast programming in your car, and watch funny videos and movies. Tell jokes whenever appropriate and learn to find funny moments in each situation.
Laughter can relieve stress and create relaxation in the body. Through laughing, the body produces endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, our happiness hormones. In order to encourage a parasympathetic state in the body, a good belly laugh is a must! In addition, laughter boosts and strengthens the immune system.¹¹
4. Listen to Music. By listening to your favorite music, it can help you to release serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin and decrease stress hormones. In addition, it can help us to have better sleep and a reduction in symptoms of depression.¹²
Add in dancing, and you continue to reap the same benefit that music has, as well as increased movement, which also reduces stress, increases self-esteem, and can distract you from the worries.¹³
5. Personal Connection. Contact a positive friend or family member for good conversation and laughter, which will help release oxytocin, the hormone released when bonding with others, as well as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.
In the research literature, it was revealed that women especially find comfort in “tending and befriending” other women when they are dealing with a stressful situation. Women in fact have different ways that they respond and react to stress than men. In this way, women seek social support in order to respond to a potential threat.¹⁴
These simple solutions above can bring us to a positive state of what Mihaly Czikszentmihaly calls, “flow.” The state of “flow” is where we enter a state of pleasure, joy, and we forget our daily worries and responsibilities.¹⁵ These activities, which connect us to nature, light, deep breathing, music, laughter, joy, and others, have tremendous benefits on stress reduction, our mood, brain health, restorative sleep, as well as immune function.
May you all experience more joy in your day today!
Amy Panetta, MA, NC, empowers women who are feeling stressed, weighed down, and exhausted to find balance, lose excess weight, and feel vibrant. In her thesis, Amy focused on the connection between chronic stress, allostatic overload, and obesity in women. She currently works with clients individually or in groups to create their own transitional approach towards a diet filled with lots of whole foods, helpful supplementation, and lifestyle changes. She offers nutrition consulting online, as well as outside of Montreal, Quebec and in the Burlington, Vermont area. For more information, you can find her in the following ways:
¹ McEwen B. S. (2005). Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference?. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 30(5), 315-8.
² Parker, S. (2013). The Human Body Book. New York, New York: DK Publishing.
³ Wright, Kenneth P., et al. (2013). “Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle.” Current Biology, vol. 23, no. 16, pp. 1554–1558., doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039.
⁴ Sahlin, E., Ahlborg, G., Jr, Matuszczyk, J. V., & Grahn, P. (2014). Nature-based stress management course for individuals at risk of adverse health effects from work-related stress-effects on stress related symptoms, workability and sick leave. International journal of environmental research and public health, 11(6), 6586–6611. doi:10.3390/ijerph110606586
⁵ Jerath, Ravinder, et al. (2006). “Physiology of Long Pranayamic Breathing: Neural Respiratory Elements May Provide a Mechanism That Explains How Slow Deep Breathing Shifts the Autonomic Nervous System.” Medical Hypotheses, vol. 67, no. 3, pp. 566–571., doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042.
⁶ Solan, M. (2019, April 26). Ease anxiety and stress: Take a (belly) breather. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/ease-anxiety-and-stress-take-a-belly-breather-2019042616521
⁷ Wood, Alex M., et al. (2008). “The Role of Gratitude in the Development of Social Support, Stress, and Depression: Two Longitudinal Studies.” Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 854–871., doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003.
⁸ Mccorry, Laurie Kelly. (2007). “Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, vol. 71, no. 4, p. 78., doi:10.5688/aj710478.
⁹ Zimmerman, E. (2019, May 09). I Now Suspect the Vagus Nerve Is the Key to Well-being. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2019/05/i-now-suspect-the-vagus-nerve-is-the-key-to-well-being.html?fbclid=IwAR0QGF2FlEbe3- SeIALhdJfzFvwpSL9RoMtbkQzN1XJKVVG8mb_XHZkyryI
¹⁰ “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude.
¹¹ Louie, Dexter et al.(2016). “The Laughter Prescription: A Tool for Lifestyle Medicine.” American journal of lifestyle medicine vol. 10,4 262-267. doi:10.1177/1559827614550279
¹² Mallik, Adiel, et al. (2017). “Anhedonia to Music and Mu-Opioids: Evidence from the Administration of Naltrexone.” Scientific Reports, vol. 7, no. 1, doi:10.1038/srep41952.
¹³ Martin, Lily et al. (2018). “Creative Arts Interventions for Stress Management and Prevention-A Systematic Review.” Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 8,2 28. doi:10.3390/bs8020028
¹⁴ Taylor, SE, et al. (2002). “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight.” Foundations in Social Neuroscience, doi:10.7551/mitpress/3077.003.0048.
¹⁵ Stavrou, Nektarios A M et al. (2015). “Flow theory – goal orientation theory: positive experience is related to athlete’s goal orientation.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 6 1499. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01499