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How to Hack Your Stress Response

You know what it feels like to be stressed, your heart rate increases, you start to breathe a little faster, your muscles start to tense, and maybe you even start to sweat a little. These feelings are all part of your body’s fight or flight response.

But did you know that your fight or flight response is actually part of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? And there are ways to hack these systems in order to decrease your stress levels, fast! In this blog, we’ll explain how.

What are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems?

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are both parts of the autonomic nervous system. They serve opposing jobs in your body’s stress response.

  • The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) acts like the gas pedal in a car. It sets off the fight or flight response and gives your body the energy it needs to respond to a potential threat.

  • The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) acts like the brakes in this metaphorical car. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that allows the body to calm down after the danger has passed.

When working properly, the SNS and PNS will work together to amp you up to respond to a potential threat and then calm you down when the danger is gone.

The SNS & PNS in action:

Your body’s stress response begins in the brain. When you experience a stressful event, the amygdala, the region of the brain that contributes to emotional functioning, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts as the command center of your brain, communicating with the rest of your body through the nervous system. Specifically, the hypothalamus communicates with the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary functions like breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and the dilation or constriction of blood vessels in your lungs. And remember, the SNS and PNS are the two parts that make up the autonomic nervous system.

When the amygdala sends this first distress signal, the hypothalamus will activate the SNS by sending signals through your nerves to the adrenal glands. In response, the adrenal glands will release epinephrine, the hormone also known as adrenaline, into your bloodstream. The additional adrenaline in the bloodstream will cause a number of physiological changes, such as:

  • Increased heartbeat

  • More blood in the muscles, heart, and other vital organs

  • Pulse and blood pressure increase

  • Breathing speed will increase

All of these changes will prime you to defend yourself or run in the face of a dangerous threat. Epinephrine will also trigger the release of glucose, blood sugar, and fats from storage sites into the bloodstream. This excess glucose and fat will help to supple energy throughout your body.

Once this threatening situation has passed, the body will return to its pre-emergency, unstressed state. This recovery is stimulated by the PNS, which has opposing effects to the SNS. The PNS will decrease the amount of epinephrine and cortisol in the bloodstream and allow breathing to slow, heart rate to return to normal, and blood circulation to regulate.

What happens when the PNS can’t stop your stress response?

Unfortunately, for many of those with chronic stress, the PNS isn’t always able to stop the stress response. This is due to the role of the HPA axis, the second component of the stress response that is activated after the release of epinephrine by the SNS. The HPA axis is supposed to keep the gas pedal pressed down until the threat has passed and stimulates the release of other stress hormones like cortisol.

However, the HPA axis has difficulty de-activating when you’re under chronic low-level stress (which seems to be a constant state of existence for many of us). After a while, the HPA axis and it’s effects can lead to health problems typically associated with chronic stress. For example, persistent stress hormone surges can lead to:

  • Damage to blood vessels and arteries

  • Long-term heightened blood pressure

  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke

  • Build-up of fat

  • Increased appetite

  • Insomnia

  • GI issues

  • Weakened immune system

  • Weight gain

When your body gets stuck in fight or flight mode, serious damage can be caused to your entire body. And, because we know it’s unrealistic to tell you to stay away from stressful situations entirely, we’ve compiled some ways to boost your PNS function in order to put the breaks on your stress response.

How to boost parasympathetic nervous system function?

Luckily, there are ways to boost the functioning of your PNS to decrease your stress response. Some of these methods include:

  • Physical activity → Exercise can be used to decrease the buildup of stress in several ways.

    • A brisk walk can help to relieve muscle tension while also deepening breathing.

    • Movement therapies like yoga and tai chi combine deep breathing with mental focus, which will help induce feelings of calmness.

    • Exercise will also help to lower your stress response by increasing your happy hormones, endorphins. Endorphins signal to your body that you’re no longer facing a threat

  • Social support → Getting support from your friends, co-workers, relatives, companions, confidants, spouses, and siblings can all help you to destress and increase your longevity! The buffering theory maintains that when you have close relationships that provide emotional support, it will help you to remain calm during times of chronic stress or crisis.

  • Meditation and breathing exercises → Practicing these exercises will help to lower your sensory and neurological input to a minimum, which will help your PNS to take over and slow the stress response. Try exercises like these to stimulate calmness:

  • Touching your lips → While this method may sound strange, gently touching your lips can actually help to stimulate the PNS. This is because your lips have parasympathetic fibers spread throughout them. So, by gently running one or 2 fingers over your lips, you will help to boost your calming response.

  • Use visualization → Visualization and imagery can also help to boost your PNS functioning. By using all of your senses to visualize a relaxing place, you will slow your breathing and heart rate. If visualization is challenging for you, try a guided exercise like the ones below!

Hopefully, by further understanding your stress response, you can have the power to control it. For more information on controlling your stress response, click here to contact us. If you have any more questions about your path to optimal health, email our office at or call 276-235-3205.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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