How to use targeted stress to promote relaxation

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene.


In recent weeks we’ve spoken extensively about parasympathetic and sympathetic activation. As a refresher, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for controlling states of alertness and states of relaxation. The ANS is composed of two branches, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. 

Parasympathetic activation leads to relaxation and restoration. This state is characterized by a low heart rate, proper digestion, and a release of serotonin and oxytocin (happiness hormones). On the other hand, sympathetic activation promotes alertness and readiness for action. Sympathetic states are responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ stress response that is characterized by an adrenaline rush, heightened heart rate, decreased digestion, clammy hands, and more. 

Normally, the body will maintain a general state of parasympathetic activation until the sympathetic nervous system is required. Now that our lives typically require little need to fend for our safety, sympathetic cues are more often daily stressors like big presentations, an important competition, or a chaotic car ride. This is entirely fine in isolation and should even be an expected state periodically. The important caveat is that you should come down from your heightened response and kick back in your unique way.

The issue is, these stressors are frequently experienced unconsciously, where we are not entirely aware of our increasingly activated sympathetic response. When we string together several days of this ‘stressed out’ state, we begin to take away from our body’s relaxation and restoration phases. If taken to the extreme, the body can respond with a depressed immune system, increased risk of cancer, chronic inflammation, and more. More commonly, however, our body sends subtle warning signals. Our resting heart rate increases, we digest food poorly, and we might begin to feel less and less recovered after suboptimal sleep.  

For many people, this might feel familiar. It might feel like a cycle you’ve experienced during more strenuous times in the year, only to discount it as something transient and unrelated. Of course, nobody wants to stay in a chronically stressed out state and the ‘unconscious’ stress is exactly that: under the radar of our awareness. One of the most critical steps towards restoring your body’s rhythm is to pay attention to this ‘unconscious’ stress cycle. Once you understand what it feels like to you, you might want to arm yourself with a toolkit that will take your sympathetic activation down a notch.

Ironically, one of the best ways to help your body return to a parasympathetic state is to provide it with a conscious sympathetic stimulus. Over time, consistent conscious signals train healthy transitions between the autonomic systems. Combining conscious stressors with consistently practiced relaxation techniques will enable greater control of a system preciously believed to be beyond control. 

Fortunately, there are several proven sympathetic stressors spanning from physical activity to breathing to cold-therapy. Remember to use the conscious sympathetic stressors in addition to your choice of parasympathetic activators. 

Conscious sympathetic stressors: 

  • Wim Hof breathing method: This and other variations of tummo (inner fire) breathing meditation are powerful regulators of the autonomic nervous system. See the video instructions here. If possible, breathe through the nose. 
  • Cold exposure: Acute cold exposure stimulates the vagus nerve and serves as an artificial stress signal. As your body adapts to the temperature, your parasympathetic nervous system increases its activity. Cold showers, ice baths, and outdoor cold exposure can do the trick. Again, Wim Hof has extensive experience in this regard, so refer to his site here
  • Moderate exercise: Exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and results in increased heart rate and respiration. After exercise, your body responds with increased parasympathetic activation. Consistent exercise will enable a return to normal relaxed states.  
  • Sauna bathing: Researchers evaluating the effects of a sauna session on the autonomic nervous system found an increase in sympathetic activation during the bathing period. During the cooling period, HR dropped and HRV increased significantly, demonstrating a rebound in parasympathetic activity. 

 

Conscious parasympathetic activators:

  • Resonant breathing: We wrote a more in depth article about this breathing technique here. This exercise has proven benefits for increasing HRV and returning to a relaxed, restorative state. We’ve found that focusing on expanding your breath into your lower abdomen and bottom two ribs works best. 
  • Alternate nostril breathing: Again, this technique has been proven in research settings. We have a full breakdown of the exercise here. Throw this in for 15-20 minutes before bed for ultimate relaxation. 
  • Meditation: There are countless types of meditation, but our favorite is transcendental. Apps/programs like Calm, Headspace, or NSR are widely used.