If you’ve spent any time in a yoga or meditation studio, you may have come across the concept of ‘resetting’ the nervous system. It sounds legit, but what does it actually mean?
Here, we demystify the concept and explain why it plays an important role in overall health and well-being.
When we talk about ‘resetting’ the nervous system, we have to look to the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is a component of the central processing center that coordinates the activity of your entire nervous system. It’s in charge of the bodily functions you don’t have to think about, like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. “When you think about ‘autonomic,’ think ‘automatic,’” says Jennifer Novak, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and performance recovery coach. Your autonomic nervous system responds to your environment and circumstances, triggering a series of automatic processes to help you handle the situation facing you.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts:
Also known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ system, the sympathetic component of your autonomic nervous system kicks in when you’re faced with a threat (real or imagined). It’s responsible for that pounding sensation you feel in your chest when you argue with a friend or partner. It also increases breathing and blood pressure, reduces blood flow to your gastrointestinal (GI) system, slows digestion and shuttles more glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream, according to Novak.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system’s counterpart and is often referred to as the ‘rest-and-digest’ system. As soon as a threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system gets to work bringing your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, blood sugar and digestion back to normal levels, according to Novak.
Mainstream medicine has no clinical definition of ‘reset’ as it applies to your nervous system, according to Dr. Stephanie Marango, an integrative physician in New York City. So, your understanding of the concept may depend on how you define ‘reset.’
However, ‘reset’ can mean making an adjustment that helps your body (the nervous system in particular) function better. “Similar to how we reset a clock to its right time, an odometer to zero, or a computer, so it works well again,” Marango says.
“In all of these examples, there is a bringing-into-balance that occurs,” she continues. In this sense, ‘resetting’ the nervous system could mean balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses, which vary according to what balance feels like for you.
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For example, if you feel anxious 24/7, you may benefit from meditation, deep breathing and other relaxing practices that crank up your parasympathetic ‘rest-and-digest’ response. “In another example, someone who is feeling sluggish may benefit from activating the sympathetic nervous system through an invigorating vinyasa flow or going for a run,” Marango says.
However, with our ‘go-go-go’ society, most of us could use more parasympathetic responses — and fewer sympathetic responses. “Therefore, when someone talks about ‘resetting’ the nervous system, they’re referring to the stress-management techniques that help switch our autonomic nervous system from being stuck in sympathetic dominance to engaging the parasympathetic division,” Novak says.
It’s no secret many of us are stressed to the max. Stress is good in healthy doses, but with the pressure many of us face constantly, chances are your nervous system is stuck on ‘high alert.’
“Our systems are designed to reset naturally when stressors are removed,” Novak says. But if a stressor is always dogging you (like going from a packed workday to a HIIT workout and into an argument with your partner), your sympathetic response will stay active longer than is healthy. Chronically elevated heart rates, stress hormones (like cortisol), and blood pressure levels (among other sympathetic responses) may increase your risk of chronic conditions (like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes), according to 2015 research.
What’s more, all that stress could tempt you to turn to unhealthy habits (like alcohol and binge eating) for relief, which may magnify any chronic conditions you may have developed, Novak says.
If you’re constantly stressed out, start introducing relaxing activities into your day.
Restorative yoga, meditation and breathwork are all great options for calming your nervous system. They’re different activities, but they all involve taking slow, full breaths, “which invokes the parasympathetic nervous system,” Marango says.
“Breathing is one of the few physiologic processes that can be both involuntary and voluntary,” she continues. So, if you’re feeling anxious and stressed, you can intentionally bring yourself back to a calmer state by taking slow, deep breaths. Novak suggests inhaling deeply through the nose, holding for a second or two, and then breathing out (imagine you’re breathing out through a straw) until you feel like you’ve released all your air. Repeat as many times as needed to feel relaxed.
You can also take a slow, meditative walk, give your partner a bear hug (Novak suggests holding for at least 20 seconds), or list all the people and things you’re grateful for.
“Of course, limiting, mitigating or removing additional stressors from our lives is most helpful,” Novak says. Brainstorm ways you can cut back on mental, emotional and physical stressors in your daily life.
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