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Parasympathetic Pause for Mental, Emotional and Physical Health

By Jodi Cohen

A person in peaceful meditation with nature, finding tranquility by a gentle waterfall.

I recently spoke about my parasympathetic pause – the power to gear shift your entire physiology, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally by intentionally shifting your nervous system, out of “sympathetic” fight or flight and into “parasympathetic flow.

As you may recall, your parasympathetic state is the healing state that brings your nervous system into balance. Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) runs all of the involuntary mechanisms in your body that are not under your conscious control, such as your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration, cell activity, and even body temperature.

Your “sympathetic” nervous system serves as the “gas pedal” to mobilize your body and brain into your “fight or flight” response to danger.  Your  “parasympathetic” nervous system serves as the “brake pedal” that initiates a relaxation response to restore reparative function after the threat has passed.

These two branches operate with a push-pull dynamic and activate very different physical and mental states of being.  There is a constant calibration between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems with one or the other playing a more active role at any given time to your body in balance and ensure that we have enough resources, in the right places, at the right time.

Chronic anxiety or stress keeps us locked in the “Sympathetic” branch of the nervous system which drains your battery, resulting in poor physical health, cognitive challenges and emotional overwhelm.

When you “pause” and intentionally activate your parasympathetic nervous system, you recharge your battery, so you have the energy and capacity to fully show up in all the various dimensions of life.

Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, noted: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

I call that space, the Parasympathetic Pause.

Today I wanted to elaborate on how this parasympathetic pause can help support all aspects of your health, including not only physical health, but mental and emotional health as well.


Parasympathetic for Physical Health

All processes of your healing and health maintenance — including digestion, detoxification, immune activities, tissue regeneration, and being aroused — happen in the parasympathetic state.  Almost all disease and dysfunction result from you not being able to drop into the Parasympathetic state.

For example, nutrients are properly delivered to the cells when you take the time to eat in a parasympathetic state.  If we eat under stress, the nutrients in our food will not be properly digested, absorbed or assimilated.  When you eat in the parasympathetic state, the brain activates all of your digestive functions, including the production of saliva, release of stomach acid, enzymes and bile.  The parasympathetic state supports nutrient assimilation and motility. Peristalsis, the muscle contractions required to move food and waste through your system, also relies on a Parasympathetic state. The inability to drop into the Parasympathetic state is a primary cause of constipation.  The Parasympathetic state also allows the gut to signal the brain about hunger and satiety, helping you better know when you are truly hungry and full. Applying Parasympathetic® behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone before meals helps to drop you into the Parasympathetic state will help you heal faster because the nutrients are actually getting into your body in a way that the body can use them.

Similarly, detoxification, or your body’s mechanism of eliminating toxins, only occurs in the Parasympathetic state. The vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic response, connects to all the organs of detoxification including the lungs, spleen, kidney, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, stomach and colon.

The parasympathetic state also reduces inflammation in your body – the vagus nerve serves as a detection system for inflammation. The vagus nerve’s vast network of fibers stationed around the organs identify inflammation (such as the presence of inflammatory proteins) and alert your brain to send out anti-inflammatory signals, in essence helping to prevent chronic inflammation in your body. The Parasympathetic state helps improve communication between your body and your brain to help modulate your inflammatory response.  In the parasympathetic state, your vagus nerve communicates with the rest of the body by releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which acts as a brake on inflammation in your body, inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory messengers.

Parasympathetic for Mental Health

The Parasympathetic Pause supports your cognitive health as well.  When you are operating from the “fight or flight” survival mode, your Sympathetic branch of your nervous system prepares you for action.  Your muscles tense and your vision narrows, allowing you to narrow your focus and pay close attention to the external, physical world.

Selective attention, a process where you identify and survive threats before dedicating your attention to anything else, helps you focus on what’s important while ignoring irrelevant, outside information.  Just as the sympathetic nervous system turns off all functions not critical to survival, including your ability to digest food, it also turns off your capacity to access critical thinking and problem solving skills, by shutting down your ability to focus on anything outside of the pressing danger.

You are constantly bombarded with sensory information. If you focus your attention on everything going on around you, you will go into sensory overload and be unable to maintain your focus on safety.  Unfortunately, when the sympathetic state locks you into a state of constantly scan for threats, it shuts down your ability to thoughtfully contemplate different perspectives that might feel threatening to your safety.

This hyper-vigilance can save your life when you are under threat, but also restricts your emotional regulation or receptivity to new or different viewpoints and ideas, making you more likely to engage in and amplify conflict.   

When you respond from a place of survival and fear, you often blow your top and end up regretting your behavior later on.  Activating the “parasympathetic pause” can help you improve cognition.  In fact, research from the University of Oregon found that “greater parasympathetic activity is a marker of increased selective attention and neurocognitive function.”

In other words, you can heighten your selective attention and your ability to stay open to new or conflicting ideas by activating your parasympathetic state.  Your parasympathetic nervous system activates the relaxed physical and mental state that allows you to consider and integrate new ideas.

In the parasympathetic state, your vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, to help enhance attention, and learning.  In your brain, acetylcholine activates and inhibits communication between different brain regions to properly store information, by speeding up or slowing down nerve signals.  In your brain, acetylcholine is mainly excitatory, allowing your neurons to communicate so you can think clearly, learn new information and form new memories.

It is critical to shift out of the Sympathetic, survival mode, branch of your nervous system as it is not conducive to making wise, thoughtful choices.  The easiest way to do this is to literally force yourself to pause and activate your Parasympathetic nervous system.   My favorite way to stimulate the Parasympathetic nervous system is to apply Parasympathetic blend behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone.

Parasympathetic for Emotional Health

The “parasympathetic pause” helps you feel safe which allows you to process or “digest” information from a more balanced emotional state.  The parasympathetic state helps to activate the neural connections necessary for healthy cognitive and emotion regulation.

When you are able to shift out of the high alert state into a mental and emotional space of safety, your mind can relax, allowing you to calm your emotional state and expand your focus.

Once you are able to calm your nervous system, you may notice that you immediately feel less triggered and far less reactive.  It is far easier to practice restraint in the Parasympathetic state.

In her excellent book The Art of Extreme Self Care, Cheryl Richardson advices that a “parasympathetic pause” is a wise choice when:

  • You can’t think clearly
  • You feel really angry and triggered
  • Your emotional reaction feels bigger than what the current situation warrants.
  • You feel anxiety coursing through your veins and feel compelled to react
  • You feel angry and know there’s a good chance you will say something mean or stupid that you will regret.

If you experience any of these emotional reactions listed above, consider pausing and activating your parasympathetic nervous system.  Again, the fastest and easiest way to stimulate the Parasympathetic nervous system is to apply Parasympathetic blend behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone.

In Chinese medicine, negative emotions are believed to cause a disruption in the body’s energy system, often in connection to certain meridians and organs in the body. The word emotion includes the word motion, signifying that emotions are meant for us to experience and move through.

Apply the Parasympathetic® blend and allow emotions to be present without judgment. It helps to name the emotions, like “anger”, “fear”, “sadness” or “frustration” – this unattached acceptance allows you to identify and release these emotions.  Acknowledging your emotions from a mindful state allows you to observe your experience from a more detached, less emotional place which makes it easier to process.

It is helpful to allow the emotion wash over you without feeling the need to judge yourself or avoid it.  I try to drop into the parasympathetic state where I can pause and objectively observe the emotion.  This mindfulness practice can help you process challenging emotions like anger, grief, fear, and sadness.


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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.