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How To Combat Anxiety by Engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System
How To Combat Anxiety by Engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System

How To Combat Anxiety by Engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System


 Jessica Olson in Blog Posted on 

12/02/2016 12:00 AM

Our bodily systems, the ones that keep us alive and the ones that allow us to achieve great things, are very complex.

The systems I would like to look at today are part of the Autonomic Nervous System(ANS), the set of nerves and sensory regulators that control our bodies’ automatic responses. Like breathing and swallowing. Within the ANS are the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PSNS) nervous systems.

The first of these, the SNS, is in charge of reactions to high stress situations, It is the mobilizing aspect of the ANS, it responds with various impulses, like the “fight or flight” mechanism. This is a very helpful aspect of out brains, it gets us out of danger, it can save our life and the lives of others, but due to the high stress lives we lead today, the SNS is constantly activated causing our day to day stressors to be much greater than they need to be.

Why is this?

There are three recognized theories on why our stress levels are so high, even on a mundane day-to-day basis.

The first is that we live in a fast paced world. Doesn’t it seem like there isn’t enough time in a day to get everything you need to do done?  We also take on too much, juggling work and family and exercise and social activities. Have you ever gotten sick and felt so grateful to have a day or two to do absolutely nothing but rest and marathon a TV series on Netflix? I certainly have.

The second theory has to do with the fact that we are in an age of sensory overload, we are overstimulated by everything. We are so saturated with sounds and images that we have become a bit immune our own sensitivity. And advertising has become louder and bolder as a result. Smart phones don’t help either. The constant availability of information, games, gossip, news, potential romance, and on-line shopping have become the new drugs of choice.

The third theory has to do with the sensationalization of the news. The way advertising has become louder and brighter and flashier to get your attention, so has the news. The intense dramatization of world events, though they are dramatic and frightening, has amplified out fear levels and we constantly feel close and threatened by situations that are sometimes halfway across the world.

One of the ramifications of our modern lives is constant anxiety, constant feelings of high levels of stress, real or imagined. We have our ancient brains all messed up.

Okay, so, since it is unlikely that any of us will re-arrange our lives to slow down a lot, there are other things you can do to engage your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), the brains’ compliment to the SNS. The PSNS is the Yin to the SNS’s yang. The PSNS is in charge of the parts of the brain that help you relax and feel calm and collected.

It is difficult to control the PSNS with the conscious brain, so it needs to be accessed from the “backdoor.”

How does one engage the PSNS?

1)Breathing. Deep, slow, even breathing. Deeper than you normally would and extending your exhale slightly can calm your PSNS. Sitting down for 10 minutes and breathing slowly and with the sole intention of watching the breath can shake off a bout of anxiety. Or try a session of mindfulness meditation, noticing what each of your senses are picking up on, one at a time, and keeping your breath steady and deep.

2)SLOWING DOWN… bring that mindfulness into your minute-to-minute activities. Just do what you need to do a little more slowly, and give yourself a little extra time to complete your tasks. If possible take one or two of your list of things to do. Do less to live more.

3)Touch your upper lip, play with it for a few minutes.

The nerve endings found in the lips are connected to the PSNS and will help you relax. I suspect that this is why nail biters find this act so comforting.

Anxiety doesn’t have to be something you live with, you can rebalance the aspects of the Autonomic Nervous System without drugs or distractions.


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Ronda is a Peak Performance Coach focusing on Life Coaching and the Mental Wellbeing of Athletes in her practice. She is also contracted through a large Division 1 University program to work with their athletes as a mental coach. She specializes in fear, pressure, adversity, uncertainty, removing obstacles, anxiety, doubt, recovering from injuries or setbacks, and identity beyond a sport or a role. She provides a proactive approach to the mental health of athletes and teams on wellbeing and the mental side of the game. Ronda is also an accomplished athlete herself and spent five seasons as a head coach for a Professional Women’s Hockey team in the Premier Hockey Federation, and is a scout for the Nashville Predators of the NHL.

Ronda’s education includes undergraduate studies in Psychology, a Masters in School Counseling and post graduate certifications in Applied Positive Psychology, The R.E.W.I.R.E. Mindset Systemᵀᴹ, and is certified as an Applied Positive Psychology coach, specializing in Leadership, Mentoring and Coaching, Teamwork and Collaboration. While Ronda has specialized in the athletic mindset, she is passionate about helping any person wanting to uncover what is possible and learn to use their mind as an asset for reaching their full potential.


Sylvia Halligan is a mind-body mental agility and change management coach. She helps organizations successfully lead and navigate change, make it stick, and empower individuals to transform into flourishing, thriving beings. Her personal coaching practice incorporates a blend of eastern philosophy practices backed by western science. Interventions include guided visualization, hypnosis, breath work, embodiment, energy psychology, positive psychology, and neuroscience.

Sylvia is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), holds certifications in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) and Applied Positive Psychology Coaching (CAPP), and is an ICF credentialed Associate Certified Coach (ACC). She is also a Prosci-Certified Change Management Practitioner and certified in The R.E.W.I.R.E. Mindset Systemᵀᴹ. Specialties: Leading organizations through change and making it stick. Guiding individual change journeys through holistic mind-body coaching. Teaching people to thrive, not just survive.


Anjali is a Holistic Health & Positive Psychology Pracitioner. As a naturally intuitive, compassionate, and deeply empathetic coach, Anjali creates an environment for her clients that allows them to truly understand the connection of how the mind and body coexist and relate to one another. Assisting clients in understanding the mind & body connection, how blocked emotions can reappear in emotional patterning or physical alignments in the body, and aids in healing through the use of various techniques, including The R.E.W.I.R.E. Mindset Systemᵀᴹ.

Anjali holds degrees in Communications and an MBA, along with post graduate degrees and certifications in Applied Positive Psychology, Integrative Holistic Health Coaching and Breathwork.ᵀᴹ


Marjolein is a trainer, facilitator and coach, specializing in Emotional Intelligence and Leadership. In her individual coaching practice, Marjolein works with people to educate and empower them with the tools from Positive Psychology, Self Compassion and Emotional Intelligence. Her work with corporations includes embedding innovative, human-centric mindset coaching, training and facilitation. She’s a Senior Leadership Facilitator for THNK, The School of Creative Leadership in Amsterdam, Netherlands where she develops global leaders in international corporations to unlock their full potential in leading themselves, and others, for greater impact.

Marjolein holds certifications in Emotional Intelligence and Leadership, Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) and is an Applied Positive Psychology coach. She is also trained in Self Compassion, through the thought leader in this space, Kristen Neff, and is certified in The R.E.W.I.R.E. Mindset Systemᵀᴹ. Marjolein holds a Masters degree in Biomedical Sciences and Post Graduate degrees in Management and Positive Psychology.