The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary functions such as your heart rate, digestion, hormones, etc.; this system works without us having to think about it.
The ANS has two branches—the sympathetic (SNS) and the parasympathetic (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Thus, stressful situations will active this system; one way being through the release of stress hormones. Perhaps you’ve heard, our bodies cannot tell the difference between an actual threat and a perceived one.
The PNS opposes the SNS—hence the relaxation response which supports such functions as digestion, repair, and the release of hormones such as growth and sex.
The SNS and PNS balance each other. Unfortunately, we live in a high-stress world, and when the SNS becomes over-active, think of issues like the breakdown of body tissue and fatigue, our bodies are thrown out of balance.
On a daily basis, we are reminded of the negative aspects of stress such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure—you are in SNS mode.
A simple trick to shift into PNS mode (again, the relaxation response) is to concentrate on your breathing and make you exhalations longer than your inhalations. Try to do this for at least five breaths when you’re in a stressful situation. Notice I’m not adding to your stress by asking you to count breaths or the length of them.
With this simple step, you’re tricking your body to shift from the SNS’s fight/flight mode to the PNS’s relaxation response. Remember your body cannot tell the difference between real and perceived stress.
Give this a try; I believe you’ll find yourself beginning to relax.