There’s been a few synchronicities around this for me lately. Up until this week, the parasympathetic nervous system was something I was vaguely aware of but hadn’t given much thought. This week, I was suddenly seeing it mentioned in multiple places: first in a book I’m reading, Tarot for Transformation by Andy Matzner (highly recommended!), then on one of my favorite podcasts, To The Best of Our Knowledge.
In case you are unfamiliar with this, here’s a very brief explanation via Psychology Today:
“The autonomic nervous system—sometimes called the involuntary nervous system—regulates many bodily systems without our conscious direction, such as the circulatory and respiratory systems. Two of its three branches are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, it puts us on high alert, sometimes called the “fight-or-flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system is necessary for our survival because it enables us to respond quickly when there’s a threat. By contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is aroused, it produces a feeling of relaxation and calm in the mind and the body.”
The article goes on to point out that many of us are living in constant fight-or-flight mode. This has already been true for a while, throw in a global pandemic and a contentious election cycle in America, plus all the other atrocities happening across the world, and it feels like we’re on collective hyperdrive now. As an aside, if you’re in the US, please vote. I have chosen to vote for the candidate whom, if elected, might actually lower our collective anxiety instead of constantly fanning the flames.
That said, having your sympathetic nervous system overly activated leads to exhaustion, burn-out and anxiety. It prevents us from claiming our full, authentic power. It’s very difficult – sometimes even impossible – to make aligned choices and do meaningful creative things when you are at the mercy of your sympathetic nervous system.
I understood this phenomenon through direct experience even before I had the language to talk about different branches of the nervous system. Back in the Key Finding days (remember I had a podcast once?) I talked about “soothing your frazzled nerves.” I didn’t realize it, but I was talking about activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Another synchronicity: when the Five of Wands comes up, I often think about ‘frazzled nerves’ or an over-activated sympathetic nervous system. Today I drew the Five of Wands with Temperance. This card combination felt eerily on point as Temperance can be about balance, and arousing the parasympathetic nervous system is described in the same Psychology Today article linked above as ‘restoring balance.’
So how can you calm your nervous system? There are many ideas out there, and you know yourself best. Try a few things and be open to find what works for you. If you already know what works for you but you’ve drifted from those things, return to them. The things I’ll describe from here are just a few that been nurturing for me lately.
Exploring ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is fascinating to me because it’s one of those places where psychology and spirituality meet. As one example, there is a long held belief in the power of breath in various spiritual traditions. The research confirms this: deep, mindful breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to calm your nervous system.
To be frank, I sometimes get annoyed when I’m told to focus on my breath. But the fact is, if you actually do it instead of just writing this off as a cliché….it does help. Harvard researcher Emma Seppala has worked with veterans experiencing trauma who have seen incredible results using breathing exercises. Seppala says:
“Sounds simplistic, but breathing is probably the most powerful thing you can use to access your parasympathetic nervous system. When you breathe in, your heart rate accelerates and your blood pressure goes up. When you breathe out, it decelerates — your blood pressure goes down. So the simplest thing you can do is start to lengthen your exhales. Taking a few minutes at your desk, closing your eyes and breathing out twice as long as you breathe in is going to calm your heart rate immediately, lower your blood pressure.”
Andy Matzner, who is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, gives in-depth information about the spiritual and scientific power of the breath in his new book. This book is really an all around treasure trove, but one thing in particular I learned is the importance of breathing in through your nose. Matzner writes:
“The tiny hairs in your nose are called cilia and they, along with a mucous membrane, act as a lint trap, preventing an excess of external particles from getting any further into your body. Cilia also warm and humidify incoming air, which is beneficial for your delicate respiratory tissue.
In addition, breathing in through the nose allows us to breath more deeply, which stimulates the lower lung to send greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body. This type of deep breathing also activates the abundance of parasympathetic nerve receptors that are found in that section of the lung.”
*Cue ‘The More You Know’ music here*
Tea is also a tried-and-true way to calm the nervous system. There’s a reason various cultures have tea traditions: not only the tea itself, but the entire ritual of tea has calming effects. Make choosing your blend a sensory experience by getting whole leaf if possible. Smell it and touch it before brewing. Watch the steam rising from your cup.
Andy Matzner points out that green tea has high rates of an amino acid known for its relaxing properties. Herbal teas are also great options – my personal favorites are peppermint and lemon balm. As an added bonus, tea pairs notoriously well with tarot.
Next up, an example of how intuitive it is to find practices to calm your nervous system. For the past year or so, I have been allllll about epsom salt baths. This isn’t because I read some cutting edge research telling me to take baths, it’s just something I felt naturally drawn to do. Once I did look into it, I found there is actually some evidence supporting this. According to the Cleveland Clinic, epsom salt baths can help soothe physical pain and ease the mind. I like to pair my baths with a soothing music playlist and my new galaxy light projector for possibly the most relaxing vibes ever (video here).
One more thing I wanted to mention today, which sort of circles us back around to where we started: imagery is another potent way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Here again we have a connection between the scientific and the spiritual, as the power of visualization has long been revered by spiritual practitioners.
I may be slightly biased, but I must say the Spacious Tarot is wonderful for visualizations and active imagination work. Especially in the major arcana, we designed most of the cards to feel immersive, as though you could move right in. Try going through the deck face-up and choosing an image that calms you. Gaze at the card, while connecting with your breath, and picture yourself immersed in the imagery. The Star is one of my favorite cards for this practice, it makes me feel awe and reverence and as though I am held and safe.
I could go on and on, because there are so many other exercises and modalities out there that might work for you. But I will leave it here for now, and simply encourage you to seek what works for you. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system really matters not just on a personal level, but on a collective level.
A culture of calm lets us act instead of react. Make conscious choices instead of living on auto-pilot. Be led by our desires instead of dragged by our fears. It is a reclamation of your natural state of being. It is a return to something your soul knows is right. It is a part of healing yourself, and in turn healing the whole.