Relax Yourself: The Parasympathetic Nervous System

We’re all traumatized. We’re human beings and to be human means to be somewhat traumatized. In fact, we’re here to be traumatized.

But if you learn to relax yourself all sorts of good things can happen.

Life offers us a series of obstacles that we are tasked with taming or overcoming. From small actions to large, our nervous system processes these obstacles and deals with them.

The part of the nervous system we are concerned with has two complementary parts— the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the system of relaxation. The sympathetic nervous system is the system of excitation. Homeostasis— the nirvana we are all searching for— is the balance of these two systems.

When these systems are out of whack they tend towards an imbalance in the sympathetic nervous system. The system of excitation kicks in as a survival mechanism to protect us when it deems necessary. 

Some people respond to stimulus by getting too relaxed and some people do live a life where they’re, shall we say, slow to respond. 

In Ayurveda, the Indian health science, they talk of  Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, as states of being; air, fire, and earth respectively.

Some people are fiery. Some people are heavier and more relaxed. Some people are more depressed than others. 

But from my perspective, living a human life, means have thinking brains that react to stimulus in a particular way. And that reaction is always harmonious.

What I have found in the work I do, is people who live in homeostasis, myself included are pretty few and far between.

And I don’t want to say that as an alarming, horrible thing. It’s just a reality. 

We’re all kind of, for one reason or another, overstimulated. 

What does that mean? 

For the body to work well—  for the nervous system to work well—  we need to alternate between one system and the other.

We need the sympathetic nervous system to kick in and then the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and they go back and forth. 

To explain this I often use the image of running for a bus.

Let’s say it’s summer and 90 degrees outside. 

You are inside your apartment and you have air conditioning with a nice temperature-controlled environment. Everything’s going well with your morning, but you have to leave. 

And it’s 90 degrees outside.

The second you get outside your body is going to go into a sort of shock.

It’s not a conscious thing but the brain registers this heat and in response to the body’s rising temperature the sympathetic nervous system kicks in to make us sweat and lower the internal body temperature, which is a great thing. 

So it does that.

You walk a bit, the sweat kicks in and the body temperature regulates a little so you can stop sweating. 

It’s the parasympathetic nervous system that allows you to stop sweating. And all is good with your body and the world.

But then the bus passes you and you have to go get that bus.

You have to run. What happens? 

You start sweating and you start breathing heavier. 

And to accommodate this, your sympathetic nervous system is working again and you’re going to start sweating in response—  and that’s the sympathetic nervous system in action. 

You make it to the bus. How cool? 

So you relax, basically go “ahh. I made it”. 

You’re on the line for the bus with four or five people so by the time you get to the front, maybe your breath is regulated again. 

And the parasympathetic nervous system is trying to help you relax out of that sympathetic action of running.

Great. All is good. 

You get on the bus and the air conditioning is on. 

Bam. You just go through the whole process again. This is a beautiful thing. 

This is the way it works. This is the way the body is designed and that’s a pretty benign five minutes of your life. So that’s what we want to have happen at all times… but we’re more sensitive than that.

And some of us are way more sensitive than others. 

So when it comes to different scenarios, scenarios that aren’t about going to get a bus, we can talk about emotional scenarios. 

We can talk about a scenario of one parent who was mean to you. One parent who allows that meanness to happen.

And what does that do to your nervous system? 

And I’m not going to go into it too much but the way I look at it is let’s say you have a mean parent, which is generic because this can be a mean boss. It could be a bad boss. Doesn’t have to be mean. It could be an environment that you shouldn’t be in.

What happens when you put yourself into an environment you shouldn’t be in.

Your sympathetic nervous system kicks, in the same way, I said it kicks in when you walk outside and it’s hot, but what if that environment doesn’t change? 

So you get hot, your body temperature regulates that and the parasympathetic nervous system can kick in to let you relax.

Then you get to the bus and again, you relax as the breath regulates the body, the temperature regulates. 

But what happens if you live in an environment, or you enter into an environment, where the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. 

Which is a healthy thing. 

It’s a response to worry or, fear or whatever, and it kicks in, and you don’t leave that environment. 

Whether that’s in your home, whether that’s at work, whether that’s walking down the street in a place where all of a sudden you don’t feel comfortable. 

Driving in traffic and getting into an argument with someone, or whatever.

What happens is, the sympathetic nervous system can kick in and not shut off. 

It can take over and basically shut off the parasympathetic nervous system. And it does that as a survival mechanism. 

And then when it gets really bad, you get what I call stuck, or caught, in the sympathetic nervous system.

And that is where so many of us live. 

And what do we do to get out of it? 

There are endless techniques to get out of it, but one thing is you kind of have to acknowledge that you’re in it, right? 

You got to go, all right, I guess I get it… I live in a heightened state of awareness.

And some people are way more sensitive than others. So some people are debilitated by this heightened state of awareness. Those are my clients. 

Those are most of the people I’m working with. People in chronic pain. People with trauma. People with car accidents that are just too intense to deal with at the moment.

And many, many years later, they’re still not dealt with. Again, emotional stuff. 

So we get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system and we need ways to get out of it. And you don’t always have to address the roots. 

You don’t always have to address what it was that put you there.

You can have techniques for getting out of it. 

So what I mean by that is, I am 57 years old. 

I am a New Yorker through and through. With the exception of five years in the 80’s, when I lived in Boston and New Jersey, I lived in Brooklyn, my entire life. 

I love Brooklyn. I said, “I will never leave Brooklyn”. I liked Boston well enough. It got small. 

I liked Jersey. It was close to New York and a cheap, beautiful apartment. But I figured I’m living in Brooklyn for the rest of my life. 

And I’m a pretty chill dude. I mean, I’ve got my stuff.  Everyone’s got their stuff, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m fairly mellow. 

Brooklyn is an intense place to grow up.

It’s a great place to grow up. I’m Brooklyn proud. 

You know, I never say I’m from New York. Brooklyn rules. 

And there are things it’s about living in Brooklyn that are kind of intense. 

We lived in a house, we lived in an apartment. We lived in many different places. The last place my family lived was an apartment building.

You know, it’s not a joke to say that there’s no parking in Brooklyn. 

It’s not a joke to say that Brooklyn is very crowded with people. 

Brooklyn is loud. Brooklyn is intense. It’s New York. New York, New York, it’s the greatest place on earth, blah, blah, blah.

It’s New York. It rules. 

It’s Brooklyn. I never thought I was going to leave. 

But my parents passed away and my mother-in-law lives in Cleveland and we adopted a dog in Brooklyn who was sort of broken emotionally and this dog couldn’t handle Brooklyn. 

Of course, I adopted a dog with a broken nervous system. 

A dog that just lived in its sympathetic nervous system. It was one of the most amazing things to see. We adopted it, we bring it home. 

And within days the dog cannot handle Brooklyn. 

The sound, the smell.  She got housebroken pretty quickly but she would go out, do her business and pull to go back in. 

She was a freak darting to get away. It was so intense. 

We hooked up with a trainer who helped a little bit, but anyway, we went upstate one weekend and the dog wasn’t so unhappy. 

The dog was kind of relaxed. This led to me moving to Cleveland. 

Brooklyn born and bred, never thought I’m going to leave Brooklyn. 

And then the crazy thing that happened is, six months into living here in Cleveland, which I loved right away, immediately.

We moved at the end of the summer. It’s fall, it’s beautiful. 

Six months into living here. I realized I am so different than when I lived in Brooklyn. 

I am just so much more relaxed. 

And in fact, I am much happier.

So for one, there’s no traffic here. No one lives in Cleveland. It is not a particularly successful city.

I make my living outside of Cleveland. It’s great for me to live here. 

I wish Cleveland could have a revival. It’s not. It’s on hard times.

 There used to be a hundred thousand people 30 years ago or 40 years ago. There are now 50,000. 

Which means there’s no traffic.

And we live in a house with a garage. And there’s parking. 

You never have to look for parking. Do you know what it’s like to live in Brooklyn? And look for parking for 20 minutes?

I never have to look for parking. There’s no traffic. 

The entire city is designed in the most beautiful way with green spaces. Everywhere you drive is wide open.

I can be hiking 15 minutes from my house. 

Brooklyn is beautiful. And Brooklyn has Prospect Park where I went for an hour, every single morning of my life with my dog or dogs. 

15 minutes from where I live here, I can be in a different set of woods. Cleveland is surrounded by these Metro parks.

Anyway, the point being. I am so much more relaxed than when I lived in Brooklyn and that’s not because I have dealt with my emotional traumas, because I have plenty of them. 

And it’s not because I’ve done the deep work. It’s because I changed my environment and that change of environment for me was just really profound. 

It served my brain and body.

But I want to make a point. In the course of 10, 15 years, I’ve been doing this and working with clients, there are plenty of people I’ve told, “You have to chill out and if you live in a city, move to the country.” and in truth, that works for some people.

It worked for me. And I didn’t do it for trauma relief. 

I didn’t do it to get out of my head, and my pain. I just did it cause my dog needed it, my mother-in-law’s here, and whatever… it was good. 

I do have clients who years later tell me, ” I moved”, and I said, “Oh, that’s so great. Why did you move?” And they would say “you mentioned it one day”.

So I say that to a lot of people and it seems some of those people did just that, and it served them well. 

But I also learned over time that it doesn’t serve everybody. I know people—  not because I told them to—  they moved to the country, and it failed them.

So, it’s not for everybody but it is worth exploring what changes might serve you.

Environment is one way to change and affect the nervous system, but we can also do simple things like meditation. 

Meditation changes your brain. 

Meditation is all about getting out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system. 

And I don’t mean that we want to shut off the sympathetic nervous system. We’re always looking for homeostasis— a life in balance.

It’s just that the nature of life and the nature of trauma and the nature of existence for everybody, I believe. 

It has nothing to do with if you’re traumatized or in pain… life is heavy.

We are clueless as to how to navigate the brain we have, in the world we live in, and the interactions we have, and the technology we have… we’re just a mess.

In that sense, we all need some relaxation. 

One of the things I’m teaching about posture is the way we stand creates a sympathetic nervous system reaction. 

We stand in a way that elevates the rib cage, shortens the breath, and shoves the breath up into the body, for different reasons.

We do that for different reasons and making simple, simple changes to your posture: Getting your pelvis better aligned and getting your rib cage better aligned over the pelvis changes your breath and deepens your breath. 

And you take 18 to 20,000 breaths a day.

And if those breaths were 5% better. Or even If those breaths will 5%, 3%, even 1% better over the course of 18,000 breaths, that’s going to help you stimulate your nervous system in a good way.. 

My stuff is universal. It doesn’t concern just one aspect of our lives.  

We don’t sit well. 

We don’t stand well. 

We don’t walk well. 

We don’t sleep well… 

…If you change your sleep— tie your legs together and keep your knees together with a pillow between them— that will change your nervous system for the better because when you sleep, that’s how we heal the nervous system. 

Improve your sleep 5% and you change your nervous system. Improve your breath 1% and you change your nervous system for the better.

Here’s another: Improve the way you exercise.

When you breathe poorly in your habitual actions like standing and walking, I promise you, you’re breathing that way when you’re exercising.

So change the way you exercise a little bit to change your breath, to get more into a relaxed state, and you’re going to access more of the parasympathetic nervous system. 

So there are many, many ways to change your nervous system and relax yourself and the main way I work with people is through release work. Basic exercises where you are lying around, and not doing too much in order to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

These exercises use gravity and, tiny movements, to affect the nervous system while keeping the body super relaxed.

So relax yourself and figure out the way that works best for you. Maybe release work isn’t for you. Maybe you changing your posture isn’t for you, but there is some way. 

Taking long walks, biking…  just figure out your way to stimulate more parasympathetic nervous system response in your life. And you’ll be well served by the effort.