The term may not be familiar to you, but you already know about your sympathetic nervous system. At its most basic, it’s what causes your “fight or flight” response to danger: adrenaline floods your body, your heart and respiratory rates both speed up, and your brain causes some blood vessels to constrict while others dilate, so that your skeletal muscles have an increased blood supply. Assuming the danger you’ve perceived is a real physical threat, your sympathetic nervous system is exactly what you need to either fight for your life or run for it.
Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t kept pace with the development of human culture, so – as you have likely noticed – hearing an upsetting news story is enough to trigger this physiological response. No matter that there’s nothing for you to actually fight or flee from, your brain perceives a threat and your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action. Which can leave you with your heart pounding, hyperventilating, and twitchy, because your body is now prepped to face an enemy that might be nowhere near you.
Now let’s talk about your parasympathetic nervous system, which gets less press but is probably a better friend to you. Sometimes termed your “rest and digest” mode, the parasympathetic nervous system is what takes over when you feel completely safe. Your heart rate and breathing slow down, and different blood vessels are dilated and constricted in order to send more blood flow to your digestive and reproductive organs. With the parasympathetic nervous system in control (or, as I like to think of it, when you are in parasympathy – and yes, I just invented that word), your body relaxes its skeletal muscles and uses energy instead to do the work of maintaining and improving your health. Nutrients from the food you’ve eaten are thoroughly absorbed and processed, your blood pressure sinks, and your body just generally unclenches, sometimes to the point where you fall asleep.
A massage or other bodywork can shift you into parasympathy, but there are plenty of other ways to get there. A hot bath, some good stretches, meditation, deep breathing exercises – really, anything that soothes you and gives you a sense of well-being (physical as well as metaphysical) will engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Which is good, because if the sympathetic nervous system is allowed to dominate, over time it can wreak havoc on your health. The same neurochemicals that fortify you to deal with immediate danger can, with prolonged exposure, severely weaken your immune system, to say nothing of rendering you chronically exhausted and anxious.
The phrase “self-care” gets kicked around so often these days that it becomes easy to ignore. But the concept is a valuable one, especially when we’re flexible with the definition. The key, I think, is to reframe self-care as “what puts you in parasympathy” – which can differ radically from day to day. Some days, for example, what makes me feel safe and serene is a healthy diet and plenty of exercise, while other days it might be a chocolate-and-TV binge. Those approaches are diametrically opposed, but they’re both self-care, and both valid responses to stress.
We undoubtedly, as the apocryphal Chinese curse would put it, live in interesting times, and we’re all doing our best to deal with that. Maybe we’re striving to make the world better, maybe we’re keeping our heads down and just getting on with life; speaking for myself, I’m trying to find a balance between those paradigms. Whatever path you’re walking, though, I believe self-care is more important now than ever. Parasympathy is what allows us to navigate this world with some measure of peace.
(With that in mind, might I interest you in a massage?)