Take Care: 20 ways to tap back into parasympathetic

The question that has changed my practice the most in the last year is: “what do you do on a day-to-day basis to take care of yourself?” The answer to this question is usually tear-glossed eyes and silence.

Living in a world where there is always pressure to do, the biggest reminder this year to myself has been just to be. Not cramming every small moment with a ‘to-do’ list item. Taking care by doing less.

Every time I do something that brings me peace, I write it down in a note pad. And that way I have it easily accessible to remind myself of these very small things to take care of myself when I feel like I have no time/energy at all: washing my face, making my bed, going on a walk, reading a book, lighting incense, eating a piece of fruit, facetiming my sister, listening to classical music.

These simple rituals take me from a sympathetic nervous state (fight, flight, flee) to parasympathetic (rest, digest).

Quite honestly, sometimes after work it feels difficult to take a deep breath. The state of primary care right new comes with a lot of intensity. I never for one moment regret my decision to be a PA. But I’ve also never had to spend more active time thinking about how I take care of myself.

My job simply is not sustainable if I don’t slow down. The risk of burn out is high and I’m spending a lot of energy aiming to prevent that.

Here are some other interventions I do when things start to feel a bit chaotic. The goal is to do these BEFORE I start feeling the crushing defeat of the burn-out blanket. I keep this list easily accessible in my note pad and am constantly adding to it. Can’t recommend that enough! When something ignites even the slightest of smirks, write it down! You’ll never know when you need to revisit it. 

  1. Breath work / mindfulness even if for 3 minutes in the morning: there is so much science to breath work, especially if it’s deep enough to involve the diaphragm. For step by step instructions on how to activate diaphragmatic breathing, check out this post.
  2. Gentler movements (avoiding high intensity and seeking softer + gentler movement instead). If you’re already in a state of sympathetic overdrive, piling on the high intensity exercise can in fact spike cortisol even higher. Your body has a very difficult time ascertaining the difference between physical and emotional stress. Stress is stress! And in times of psychological chaos, it may be more beneficial to stick to slower and more intentional forms of movement. Think: walking, pilates, yoga, gentle swimming, tai chi. I’d even encourage modifying all movement so that the intensity meets you where you’re at.
  3. Prioritizing sleep. Getting good QUALITY sleep is incredibly important during times of high stress. High stress, however, doesn’t exactly lend to falling asleep quickly and soundly. I get really strict during these times, going screen free a few hours before, doing some gentle stretching, taking a bath, and reading a fiction book. I’ll also utilized a CBD/melatonin gummy. Not at all sponsored, this has just been the only thing to really help my sleep. CBD certainly isn’t for everyone – way more info about that here.
  4. Find your mantra! Sometimes repeating “I’m doing the best I can” to the tune of a song you like. Or repeating it while going for a walk. this repetition, and pairing the repetition with movement, can almost act like EMDR. This is a modality utilized in therapy that helps with processing. It can help alleviate distress in a safe and secure way. A few of my favorite mantras include: “Give in to the unknown,” “I have everything I need,” “I trust in the timing of my life.”
  5. Digestively simple nutrition. This will look different on everyone. But mostly unprocessed foods with as minimal ingredients as possible. Try to avoid the comfort food trap if possible, and instead go back to basics: low sugar/refined carbohydrates/processed/fake foods, gut friendly ingredients, fruits, vegetables, protein, healthy fats.
  6. Removing as much from the to do list as possible. Simplify, simplify, simplify! Truly out of sight, out of mind. Remove as much as possible from the to do list, and scale back to just the essentials/mandatory items. Alternatively, writing “brush teeth” on the to-do list and then crossing it off is quite satisfying…
  7. CANCELING plans. Yup. As above, scaling back to just the essentials. Carving out more time for you if this helps regenerate energy. Alternatively, if you’re
  8. Wearing loose comfortable clothing to avoid feeling restricted/uncomfortable. This can help down regulate the nervous system in a really simple way. If you’re already at capacity, you may notice small sensations seem especially irritating: loud chewing, a scratchy sweater, wet socks to name a few. Instead, aim for sensory deprivation by eliminating some of those low hanging fruit irritants: pack snacks to avoid extreme hunger, loose baggy clothing, noise canceling headphones.
  9. Keeping a tidy space: as above, this can help carve out some added space when things feel otherwise quite crowded.
  10. Lowering the volume on music when listening to avoid added stimulation. Lots of classical music, too!
  11. Decreasing caffeine intake. I’ll probably get some eye rolls for this one. Caffeine can elevate cortisol levels (sorry), so if you’re already in a state of elevated cortisol, caffeine may further amplify. Try for half a cup instead of one, and swapping herbal tea for the afternoon instead.
  12. Less screen time. Not only can this help sleep (the blue light from screens blocks melatonin production), but it also decreases your chances of multi-tasking. Performing activities that train your brain to focus on one task and one task alone can be incredibly soothing.
  13. Optimizing water intake: hydration. Very important. Studies have shown that being just half a liter dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels (haha!).
  14. Avoiding alcohol. Or at least more intentional consumption. While alcohol may make it a bit easier to fall asleep, it puts a wrench in staying a sleep. Overall quality of sleep is worse, and therefore a whole cascade of stress response is activated from a hormone standpoint.
  15. Therapy! Enough said.
  16. Crying!! Okay hear me out. Some studies have shown that crying can help relieve stress and improve cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones/markers).
  17. Turning phone notifications off and setting social media restrictions. Sometimes going off the grid can drastically decrease stress responses.
  18. Weighted blanket (or just a big hug). Study results vary, but the pressure can be really soothing!
  19. Avoid multitasking (eating + tv) 
  20. Tapping into mindfulness and vagal nerve stimulation. This is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest, relax) and connects the brain to the gut. This is also why in moments of heightened anxiety/depression, you may have appetite changes, nausea, vomiting, or the runs (fun!). Here are a few easy ways to activate it: singing, humming, laughing, chanting, gargling, deep and slow breathing, cold exposure (try placing an ice pack on your chest for 15 minutes!).

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