How to Activate The Parasympathetic Nervous System (The Relaxation Response)

To keep things simple, I will be referring to the parasympathetic nervous system as the relaxation response because that’s what it essentially is. It’s the total opposite of the fight or flight response.

Before I get into sharing what I think helps us to activate the relaxation response during anxiety, let me just describe to you what the two primordial responses are so you get the hang of it.

The two primordial responses

The sympathetic nervous system = The fight or flight response.

The parasympathetic nervous system = The relaxation response.

The sympathetic nervous system is what’s also known as the fight or fight response and you already know just how it feels and what goes on in your body when going through it. However, I like explaining what it is because I don’t know about you but I find this whole process fascinating. The fight or flight response is the total opposite of the relaxation response. It’s a physical response to a perceived stressor. Whether that stressor is life threatening or not, it doesn’t make any difference because the brain will still treat the stressor as an actual danger if we perceive something as threatening to our existence.

The parasympathetic nervous system also known as the relaxation response is the body and minds way of returning us to physical and psychological homeostasis. Homeostasis is just a fancy word for balance or harmony. It’s when our brain gets the message that there is nothing to be afraid of that it will then pass this message on to the part of the brain responsible for activating the fight or flight response and switch on the relaxation response, restoring our minds and body to a relaxed and calm state.

What is responsible for these two primordial responses? The automatic nervous system.

What is the automatic nervous system?

The automatic nervous system is a system which governs all of our bodily functions. Things like digestion, circulation, respiration and so on. This system is what keeps us alive. The two primordial responses which we depend on for keeping us safe our actually stored in the automatic nervous system.

When we perceive something to be dangerous to our existence, our brains pass on information to the automatic nervous system. Once the automatic nervous system has received this information, it makes the decision (outside of our conscious control) to activate the sympathetic nervous system in order to prepare us in dealing with the perceived danger, hence fight or flight. The fight or flight response stays activate until the initial threat has been removed, until we get the message that there is nothing to be afraid of.

Once the threat is no longer present, the brain sends a message to the automatic system that we are safe. Then the fight or flight response becomes inactive.

So, because the threat has been dealt with, either we have fought it or fled to safety, our brain sends signals to the automatic nervous system that there is no danger present in our environment. Once the automatic nervous system receives this message, the opposite system is triggered into action – the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.

This is when we feel ourselves slowly returning to a state of emotional harmony. The calm after the storm.

However, when we have an anxiety disorder, when there is no outside danger, the calm after the storm doesn’t happen, at least it doesn’t until we learn how to activate it. More on this later.

Because we cannot identify the danger, we make the error that the thoughts and bodily sensations which we would normally experience in a life threatening situation, are the danger. We assume that we are having a heart attack. Naturally, we react with terror. By responding with more fear, our brain is passing on the message to the automatic nervous system that we are in danger.

Then our automatic system activates what it thinks is best in this situation… you guessed it! The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). We then experience more intense bodily sensations because our body is being primed to fight or flee from the “danger”. How do we react to this experience? With more fear. This is the birth of the vicious fear of fear cycle.

So, our nervous system is trying to fight off a threat which is, after all, non-existent.

How do we convince our brain that we are safe?

In other words, how do we get the relaxation response to kick in and do it’s job of returning us to emotional harmony?

By responding in a way that sends the correct message from our brain to the automatic nervous system.

This is why it’s so important that we learn the right response to a panic attack. Fearing it and fighting it will only send the message to our brain that we are under attack so the fight or flight response will stay on and/or keep being activated until it has no reason to stay on. How does it stay on? By receiving the message that there is a danger.

Our brain doesn’t understand the difference between a fictional threat (non-existent) or a real threat so it just treats it as the same. More adrenaline will be released into the bloodstream and depending on how we respond to this adrenaline release, we will either activate the relaxation response or keep the fear response going.

It makes sense then to think that when we stop fearing (running away) and stop fighting (resisting) our anxious state including all thoughts and bodily sensations, that the relaxation response is activated.

In order to activate the relaxation response, we have to disempower the panic attack by showing our brain that we’re not afraid of it. That we are not in any need to fight or run away from something.

How do we do this? By not fighting it and by mentally encouraging it to get more intense. This approach is one of fearlessness and when we train ourselves with this response, our brain will pick up on this and make the decision that we are safe.

Self talk can be very helpful for when we are going through a panic attack. We can say something like: “Anxiety, I appreciate you are trying to keep me safe from danger, but there isn’t a danger and I’m going to prove to us that we’re completely safe.”

Then by proving it, we need to mentally tell ourselves to make it worse. We could say something like “bring it on” or “c’mon then, do your worst.” Here’s the big paradox, by trying to make it get worse, we are actually saying I’m not afraid of panic, this what the brain will decode when we practice this attitude/response. The more can practice this response, the sooner our brain will get the message that panic attacks are not to be feared.

Activating the relaxation response in generalised anxiety

One of the most powerful and simplest ways to heal generalised anxiety is through giving up the fight.¬†This can be done by first accepting the anxious thought and/or feeling. Don’t pour more fuel onto the fire so to speak by arguing with it. When we resist and try to make thoughts and/or feelings go away, we are giving off the impression that this thought and/or feeling is important. This will only mean we’ll react to this thought with more anxiety.

Another way we can activate the relaxation response is by changing our focus. During anxiety, it’s very common for us to lose interest in the things around us which we would normally love to do. We become so fixated on our anxiety that everything else is shut off and taken for granted. We become our anxiety and it rules our life so to speak.

When we are fixated on our anxious thoughts and sensations, when we identify with them and take them to be the truth of who we are or believe they are a true representation of reality, we intentionally keep the fight or flight response activated. Once we believe these thoughts as truth, once we believe the bodily sensations are posing a threat to our existence, more adrenaline is pumped around the body in order to prepare us to fight or flee from a danger.

Once we see things in a new light, in order words, once we have a new understanding of our anxious thoughts, we can let go of a lot of fear and resistance we have towards them.

In order to break this habit of believing the thoughts and feelings to represent truth, we need to catch ourselves and recognise that these thoughts are just fictions of the mind. They are stories we are telling ourselves. All that’s happened is that we’ve started to take the fictions in our mind as the truth. Just because we have thoughts, doesn’t mean they’re true. Reminding ourselves often that thoughts are just stories our minds are creating and not actual truth is helpful.

In order to break this habit of fixation, it’s helpful to keep our minds as occupied as much as we can so our mind doesn’t keep going back to our anxious thoughts. When we are in fight or flight, brains our wired to seek out solutions. In other words, problem solve. We think about the things that could go wrong in order to mitigate risk. This is when worst case scenario or what if thoughts are born. So, whether we like it or not, our minds are going to default to anxious thinking and being idle is what encourages this.

Absorbing ourselves in enjoyable and/or creative activities that put us in the state of flow is what will allow us to stop fixating on our anxious state.

How to not get into the state of flow whilst suffering from anxiety?

By not giving the anxiety permission to be there. When we argue with our thoughts, we are biting back at our anxiety and because we are biting back, it will bite back twice as hard. Focusing our attention away from our anxiety without allowing it to be there is another form of resistance.

How to get into the flow state whilst suffering from anxiety?

Complete and utter acceptance of our anxious state including all thoughts and feelings, whilst absorbing ourselves through occupation of the conscious mind. If we keep trying to force the anxiety away, if we keep trying to get over it through resistance and through inner conflict, then we will never put out the fire. In order to turn this into a therapeutic experience, it’s important that we focus on the things which bring us to life.

An example of this could be drawing and painting. When we draw and paint, we are expressing our creativity. Expressing our creativity is a great way for us to transmute the anxious energy into a creative and productive state. Another example could be playing a video game which includes a challenging but enjoyable story line. The key here is to not expect anxiety to be transmuted through doing stuff, otherwise we are bringing resistance back into the picture and anxiety doesn’t react well to resistance.

Without surrendering to my anxiety, I was constantly breathing more life into my anxiety. Trying to enjoy things again is impossible without first giving up the inner battle. You can try all you like to enjoy yourself through activity without acceptance, but I promise you that you will feel worse. It does take a while to feel enthusiastic and passionate about things especially when we have been so focused on our anxious state, but with giving up the fight comes a transmutation of suffering into peace.

This can be done by first accepting the anxious thought. Don’t pour more fuel onto the fire so to speak by arguing with it. When we resist and try to make thoughts go away, we are giving off the impression that the thought is important. This will only mean we’ll react to this thought with more anxiety.

Lawrence Gregory

Hi I'm Lawrence. I write about what has helped me heal/recover from high anxiety and panic attacks. Everything I share here comes from personal experience and what I've learnt from others. I write with honesty and with readers in mind, so you'll never see me share something I haven't had any experience with myself.

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