Turn off Anxiety in your Nervous System: Four Ways to Turn on the Parasympathetic Response
Updated: May 11
By Emma McAdam, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Creator of Therapy in a Nutshell
You know that feeling you get when you're angry, anxious, or scared and you can feel your body start to spiral out of control, like your falling from a plane without a parachute. Well, stick around, because I want to tell you about the built-in emotional parachute your body has, and how you can deploy it whenever you feel the need.
Today you’ll learn about your body's natural counterbalancing response to the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response.
I’m just going to cover four simple ways that work quickly to calm you down and put you and soothe that anxiety response. We’ll cover:
Deep Breathing and Vagal Tone
Peripheral vision and softening the eyes;
The Valsalva Maneuver, and
But first a little biology for context.
Our bodies have what’s called the autonomic nervous system. This part of our nervous system automatically regulates breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and a whole bunch of other stuff. When we experience a stressful situation, the autonomic nervous system kicks on the Fight, Flight, Freeze response, also called the sympathetic response. This response is also automatic and it controls how much cortisol and adrenaline are released into our system. It increases our blood pressure and breathing rate. Your hands may start to sweat, your stomach may start to clench up or your voice may start to shake just a little. These are the physical manifestations of anxiety.
However, our brilliant, wise, beautiful body has a counterbalancing force called the parasympathetic response. That's Para as in Parachute. And this is the body's natural way of slowing down and creating a sense of calm and safety. So it works like this, If your brain thinks you're in a dangerous situation, your body triggers Flight, Fight, Freeze response. But, when the dangerous situation is resolved and your brain knows you're safe, your body then triggers this parasympathetic response, which is also sometimes called rest and digest. It’s called this because, as your body starts to relax and transitions from that Fight, Flight Freeze response, other systems in your body which had temporarily been switched off, like digestion, come back online and start functioning normally again. Your breathing automatically slows down, your immune system turns back on, and you’re able to relax, calm down, and your body has time to heal.
Now, this is how your body naturally transitions between these two states, and as I’ve said it’s all automatic, so it may feel like this is all out of your control. But, with some training, you can actually teach yourself to kick on that parasympathetic response. And to do that you first need to know about your Vagus nerve.
The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system and this nerve does two really important things. First, it can trigger that parasympathetic response that we want, and second, it transmits signals in both directions- meaning that it can send information from your brain to your body about whether to be stressed or calm, and it sends information from your body to your brain about whether to be stressed or calm. So when we practice bodily calming techniques, we actually send a message along this Vagus nerve to our brain saying things are ok, we’re safe. And that in turn calms our stress and anxiety.
So let's go over these four body-calming techniques that will allow you to send calming signals from your body to your brain and better help you regulate your emotions in stressful situations.
1. Deep Breathing and Vagal Tone
So first let’s talk about Vagal Tone. Vagal Tone is a measure of how strong your parasympathetic response is. It indicates how good your Autonomic Nervous system is at calming down. And, just like muscle tone in your arm would indicate how much you exercise your arm, vagal tone is a measure of how much you use your parasympathetic nervous system and how strong it is.. To start, I’m going to first show you how to feel your vagal tone and you’ll be doing this by measuring your heart rate variability.
First, find your pulse on your wrist, or if you hold really still you should be able to feel your heart beating. Now breathe in and breathe out very slowly, and pay attention to what happens to your heart rate when you breathe in and when you breathe out.
Did you notice that? When you breathe in, your heart rate increases, and when you breathe out slowly, your heart slows way down. That’s heart rate variability.
For people who have stronger vagal tone, their heart rate slows down even more on the out-breath, than people who have weaker vagal tone. And just like exercising your arm muscles, you can exercise with deep breathing to strengthen your Vagal tone.
Higher vagal tone is associated with better general health. It leads to better blood sugar regulation, better heart health, improved digestion, and a reduction in migraines. Most importantly, it improves emotional stability and resilience.
Lower vagal tone is associated with mood instability, depression, PTSD, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, and inflammation.
You’ve probably heard that deep breathing helps with stress and anxiety, and this is why: deep slow breathing helps to increase your Vagal tone and trigger that parasympathetic response through the vagus nerve. You may feel yourself relax, you may notice that you start to salivate, or your eyes may soften. And that’s all thanks to how deep breathing and Vagal tone affect that vagus nerve. So practicing deep breathing, and especially those long, slow outbreaths can help you soothe that stress response, and train your body to be better at kicking on that calming parasympathetic response. This is a really helpful skill for people with Anxiety disorders and PTSD.
2. Peripheral Vision and Softening the Eyes
So I just mentioned that your eyes soften. I don’t mean they become squishy or something like that, but rather they lose focus on any one particular thing. They relax, and your focus shifts from a specific visual point to more of your peripheral vision and everything around you. You’ve likely experienced eye softening when you've been lost in thought or daydreaming. Your eyes are open but you're not really looking at anything. This is what I mean when I say your eyes soften.
Have you heard the term “Tunnel vision”? That’s where your vision seems to get really narrow when you’re stressed. Again, your brain is sending signals along that vagus nerve to get into Fight, Flight, Freeze mode. I’ve only really noticed it happen to me once. I was rock climbing up a scary route, and there was a high risk of a fall. I came to this one spot on the route, and I was gripping the holds in the rock as tightly as I could while looking for my next hold to keep moving. I was really nervous and my arms were gripped and running out of strength. I was looking as hard as I could but just couldn’t see any holds. I was starting to shake and just then my belayer yelled up to me that there’s a huge hold basically right in front of my eyes, and yep, there it was. But because I was feeling nervous and my body was getting all stressed out, it’s like it shut down my ability to see around me.
Well, turns out that tunnel vision is a sympathetic response, again part of Fight, Flight, Freeze, and when we soften our eyes, we can trigger a parasympathetic response. A.K.A, we can use our body to send signals up the vagus nerve to the brain and tell it to calm down. Buddhists and yogis have known and practiced this for centuries.
So here’s the second way to trigger that parasympathetic response- start by softening the muscles around your eyes. If you don’t know how to consciously do that, you can start by squeezing them closed and then relaxing them to gain awareness or you can gently touch the sides of your eyes. Gently close your eyes, and then open them and then try to expand your awareness to the sides of your vision while keeping your eyeballs straight ahead. Again, kind of like you would while daydreaming. Instead of focusing on what is in front of you, you’ll then bring your awareness to your peripheral vision. So, using your peripheral vision is a way to trigger that calming parasympathetic response.
3. The Valsalva Maneuver
Ok, A third way to calm anxiety is to increase the pressure in your chest cavity- This is called the Valsalva maneuver. My five year old would love this because she loves potty talk, but basically, you’re going to bear down as if you’re pooping. Or you can plug your nose and close your mouth and push out as if you’re going to exhale or like you’re stifling a sneeze. The vagus nerve actually comes into contact with your pelvic floor.
When paramedics are working with someone who has tachycardia- that’s a fast heartbeat, they’ll often tell them to bear down, because this triggers the heart to slow down.
So bearing down is another way to stimulate that nerve and send signals to your brain to calm down, to trigger that parasympathetic response. Try breathing in for 5 seconds. Then hold and bear down for five seconds. Don’t push hard, you just need to create a little pressure in your chest. Finally, breathe out for 5 seconds. Do this once or twice in a row, breathing regularly in between so you don’t get light-headed. This can help trigger that vagus nerve.
4. The Yawn
Finally, the 4th action to trigger your Vagus nerve is to Yawn. My favorite way to do this is to make the R sound. Open your mouth big and try to lift your soft palate in the back of the roof of your mouth. There’s a decent chance this will make you yawn, or you can try a fake yawn to trigger that response. This action makes me sleepy and relaxed almost every time.
You may have seen this calming action in your fur babies. Have you ever noticed how after a dog gets super hyper, they’ll start doing these huge dog yawns as they calm down? My dog used to always do that in the car-she loved car trips and would get so excited, and then to calm down, she would start yawning. And you know how yawns are contagious? Well, that’s because yawning is actually a herd behavior. These contagious yawns keep the pack from going wild with excitement. The yawns send a message to each animal's vagus nerve to say, "chill out, calm down, you’re ok."
So those are four quick ways to trigger the parasympathetic response. If you’ve tried these techniques before or have others that have worked for you leave a comment. I’d love to know about them. Learning to turn on that parasympathetic response can be a great skill to have when dealing with anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, and stress.
If you’d like to learn more about how to ground your mind and body, check out my online courses-In my free Grounding Skills For Anxiety course I teach about 25 skills for ground and nervous system regulation, and in my Coping Skills and Self-Care course I teach dozens of ways to cope with intense emotions.