10 Proven Ways to Switch on Your Parasympathetic Nervous System and Feel Instantly Calmer

Relaxed woman collage
When you or a loved one are in danger—real or imagined—your body’s flight-or-fight response kicks in to help you survive a threatening situation. We’re all spending a lot more time in this mode than usual right now. Unfortunately, this type of constant “activation” can interfere with sleep, increase the risk of health problems and weaken the immune system. The good news? You already have what you need to get you out of fight-or-flight mode: Your own body’s parasympathetic nervous system. Here are 15 ways to switch this system on and trigger your body’s natural relaxation response anytime you need it. Getty Images

Grab an Ice Pack

Have you ever heard of the mammalian diving reflex? It’s a natural response that happens when a human or another mammal dips his face into cold water. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to quickly drop heart rate, relax the body and conserve oxygen. Dialectical behavioral therapy experts recommend it to clients with anxiety, addiction, depression and other issues as a way to change their moods fast. To do it at home, hold your breath and plunge your face into a large bowl or sink full of cold water or drape a cold pack over your cheeks and eyes. Hold your breath for up to 30 seconds, and repeat until you feel yourself calming down.

Try “Tapping”

Another technique that some experts recommend for anxiety is EFT tapping therapy. It’s similar to acupressure, in that a person puts pressure—in the form of firm tapping—on specific places on the body. “Proponents say the tapping helps send signals to the part of the brain that controls stress,” explains chiropractor Seth Pearl, owner of Optimal Health Chiropractic and Wellness in Harrison, New York. A 2016 study looked at the effectiveness of EFT tapping and found that people who tapped experienced a significant decrease in anxiety scores compared to participants receiving other care. To try it, watch this 10-minute guided tapping session by licensed clinical social worker Julie Schiffman, MSW.

Count Your Breaths

Breathing very slowly—about six breaths per minute—can quickly activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This type of “paced breathing” is a common tool in dialectical behavioral therapy and is easy to do wherever you are. “It’s not just about breathing in and out, you want to really focus on the number of times you’ve taken a deep breath,” says Pearl. The easiest way to practice paced breathing is to set a timer for five minutes, then breathe in deeply for four counts and out for six counts over and over until the time is up. For a more detailed explanation and guided lesson, watch this video from the DBT Center of San Diego.

Picture Yourself Somewhere Else

Imagery and visualization are classic meditation techniques known to relieve stress and calm nerves quickly. The simplest way to do it? Just close your eyes and play a movie in your head of a favorite pastime or memory, says psychologist Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in New York. Get really detailed and specific: “Visualize the sights, smells and sounds, and the people that are there,” she says. Studies show this type of imagery slows your heart rate and reduces the amount of stress hormones flowing through your body.

Tense Your Muscles

Progressive muscle relaxation, otherwise known as PMR, is an anxiety-reduction technique where you focus on tensing and relaxing specific body parts. “The point of progressive muscle relaxation is to take your thoughts away from what’s swirling around in your head and zone in instead on how your body is feeling in the moment,” says Pearl. To try PMR, find a quiet place to sit or lie down then. starting with your face and moving down your body, tense each muscle group for five seconds and then release. (Don’t tense to the point of pain, just so you’re aware of the body part over others.)

Run Around the Block

While being confined to his apartment during the country’s lockdown for coronavirus, a runner in France ran the length of his balcony back and forth for 26.2 miles. While we’re not suggesting you sprint around your house for four hours, a burst of activity can release tension in your muscles and burn off some of the anxiety you’re experiencing. Longer bouts of exercise will also release feel-good endorphins to help support your mood.

Watch a Funny Video

“We’re cooped up in our houses and apartments and tensions are high, but look for little moments of lightness whenever you can,” says Pearl. Laughing releases endorphins and dopamine, two of our body’s natural mood-boosters. In fact, one study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that a bout of laughter induces euphoria similar to that caused by narcotic drugs. So check out Ellen DeGeneres on IGTV as she calls her celebrity friends to see what they’re up to while in quarantine, or watch this quarantine-themed Adele parody video by singer Chris Mann.

Play A Good Song

Research shows that listening to calming music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our brains and bodies. Stack a playlist with all your favorite chill-out tunes, or start a new Pandora station with a song like “Inner Peace” by Beautiful Chorus.

Repeat a Positive Mantra

When you think positive thoughts, your brain releases neurochemicals related to those positive emotions. (The same happens when you think negative thoughts.) One study suggests that when we choose to practice positive affirmations, we’re better able to look at threatening information—the things that put us into that fight-or-flight mode—in a more logical way. A few affirmations to try: “This is just one moment in time,” or “I’m doing my best,” or “Remember gratitude.”

Go Outside

If you find yourself dwelling on current problems, a walk outside can help to put the brakes on the negative thought train and help you relax. Research shows that a 90-minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative rumination. If you don’t have 90 minutes, take mini outdoor breaks or let the sun shine on your face from your front porch during your next conference call.