Self Calming: 86 Ways To Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

Below is a concise self calming list I recently brainstormed for myself–and I thought it might be helpful for others as well. I keep a copy on a single piece of paper in my pocket and look at it periodically through the day. It has some eccentricities, so if one or more of the ideas is not clear, ask about it in the thread and I’ll do my best to explain what I was attempting to capture.

The ideas are an eclectic mix of insights derived from places like Buddhism, neurobiology, philosophy, and literature. If you’re not already clear on this, the sympathetic nervous system is associated with stress (the four Fs: fear, fleeing, fighting, mating) and the parasympathetic with calm. And of course the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with one another, so reaching a state of calm or eudaimonia (well being, flourishing) isn’t necessarily about just suppressing the sympathetic nervous system in favor of the parasympathetic, but activating it more skillfully (in sex, for instance, the parasympathetic nervous system activates in foreplay, the sympathetic in orgasm).

The items on the list roughly cluster into categories: discipline and energy (as preconditions for anything in life to happen); wellness (exercise, diet); meditation; general self calming; simplicity; ecology; creativity; venturing forth (novelty seeking and risk taking); networking (connecting with others); and the questioning of habitual narratives.

If I were to boil down the list to just four words, they would consist of a metaphysical claim accompanied by an overriding, sympathetic practice: one thing, no reaction. That’s probably quite a few historical thinkers–East and West, from Buddha to Spinoza to Schopenhauer–in a nutshell.

Here’s the list:

86 ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system: (1) call up (trigger) discipline, Shakti (energy), & Lila (jazz, the brain’s play & seeking systems); (2) imagine a possible future you want & delay gratification to get it, thereby exercising your anterior prefrontal cortex; (3) “do the harder thing” (Robert Sapolsky), not the easier thing, exercising the ventral medial & dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex; (4) precommit (remove temptations to strengthen resolve); (5) practice curiosity, critical thinking, attention to detail, excellence, resilience, & grit (stick-to-itiveness); (6) face the truth (ask pointed questions—and stay for the answers); (7) say, “I’ll handle it” & “I’ll feel the fear & do it anyway”; (8) say, “You’re never going to feel like it”—then do the harder thing; (9) practice Zen no thinking (no added deliberation after a decision), mindfully observing what comes via target-vow-witness (example: “I’ll walk from here to that distant light, noticing what I experience in 5-4-3-2-1…”); (10) have a Zen no-thought morning ritual (think habit, habitus, & neuroplasticity); (11) exercise to boost neurogenesis, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), preferably out of doors (bike, swim); (12) dance or do stretching, yoga, or tai chi; (13) eat flax seeds, go vegan, fast, or eat only between noon & 6pm (“nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”); (14) take supplements (fish oil, D, St. John’s wort, turmeric, chromium p.); (15) self-administer dopamine by breaking macro-goals into micro-goals (have a check-off list with deadlines—“I’ll be in the gym by 5am”); (16) set goals & say no to whatever takes you off your goals, but also be atelic—or atelic with telic things (think process & practice, not just project & goal); (17) dampen reactivity with an even temperament (go from a soundtrack of desire to a meta-soundtrack of non-reactivity); (18) accept the bent nail (Heidegger’s dasein, Dogen’s uji ) and all future engine failures now—the cup is already broken, you’re already dead; (19) dampen any pre-traumatic stress syndromes with Ram Dass’ “be here now” and Eckhart Tolle’s “is now okay?”; (20) after a trigger, breathe with mouth shut or practice breath work, like alternate nostril breathing or counting breaths, taking your reactive, default mode network—the spell of your usual head chatter—off-line; (21) notice the delusions of the evolutionary matrix (in-out boundary delusions; delusions for sex, food, status, etc.), then hack the matrix by breathing evenly through things, noticing but not reacting, like a lion on a hill; (22) exercise your prefrontal cortex—your attention and discipline muscle—through meditation (fix unconditioned attention on the present, without tanha—thirst—& don’t grasp or push away, but feel the heat—tapas—& stay); (23) notice at what stage of rising-ripening-rotting a thing is, & follow it without passion, cultivating wisdom; (24) be in no hurry, have no preferences; (25) see that nothing is simple, but consists of parts, & so take nothing personally; (26) after vipassana, replace any remaining, spell-casting negative or reactive self-talk with wisdom-based, rational self-talk (rational emotive or cognitive behavioral therapy); (27) in place of rumination, ironically pan out & see language games, systems, & subsystems as Earth’s cathedral façade, then do tratak (focused subsystem meditation, noticing the inner logic of one of its alcoves); (28) go from room to room with calm, irony & sympathy (think Kafka’s The Trial); (29) drop desire to see inside & outside as one (one thing, no reaction; Emerson’s transparent eyeball); (30) be grateful & wait on grace to visit thee (think Coleridge; think of the peculiar spotlight of space-time you so improbably inhabit); (31) be in uncertainties (“I don’t know”; negative capability); (32) think Bell’s Theorem, seeing seemingly unconnected things as really connected (entangled), like water & H2O (if this, then that; if not this, then not that); (33) think of choice, chance, & accident as limited views on a broader, strange attractor determinism, akin to failure of perception of a deeper entanglement, and so come to calm (Spinoza); (34) think: “This moment can be practice; it’s a chance”; (35) reduce cortisol, a serotonin suppressor, by getting a massage—or giving one (tap, pound, squeeze, rub, brush off, scratch, tickle, poke); (36) soak or shower; (37) trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response;  (38) relax muscles & exercise imagination (let go; do somatic quieting or biofeedback, savoring the positive in memory or fantasy); (39) hold thy tongue; (40) go still & silent (play dead, corpse pose, nap: nothing sounds as good as silence feels); (41) get dark sleep or sleep outside; (42) be the Buddha mind (wind moves, flag moves, mind moves); (43) be the radio: broadcast whatever comes; (44) unplug; (45) declutter (keep green & clean); (46) pet your puss cat or pooch; (47) be flexible & accepting; (48) forgive yourself & others; (49) let perfectionism go; (50) make peace & default to peace, your sanctuary nature; (51) make love, not war; (52) make a mental passage to India with ahimsa (nonviolence), satyagraha (truth-telling), aparagraha (non-grasping, non-materialism), santosa (contentment), & saucha (cleanliness); (53) take no action (Allen Ginsberg: “It’s never too late to do nothing at all!”); (54) don’t shop: it’s never too late to buy nothing at all; (55) find financial peace (goal: debt-zero); (56) reduce alienation by doing simple, ecological things (make toothpaste; dry clothes on a line; compost orange peels); (57) plant a tree; (58) build an upcycled tiny house; (59) read in a quiet place; (60) write; (61) make or listen to music or poetry; (62) do art or photography—or sit with an art or photography book, magnifying glass in hand; (63) practice close seeing & feeling, asking questions of things; (64) notice a process (its stage, what it’s embedded in, etc.) & count patterns (how many trees, exactly?); (65) notice a thing odd, ugly, beautiful, true, or good within a process or pattern (name & un-name the thing—and integrate and disintegrate it—so you can see it); (66) linger (think Museum Hours), savoring in silence sights, sounds, essential oils & other aromas, textures, & tastes (eat slow, take small bites); (67) be in nature or listen to nature sounds; (68) venture out or travel; (69) get sunlight & rock hunt; (70) look into the sky, day or night, or catch sunrise or sunset; (71) do a new thing (“365 days—no repeats”); (72) reframe: be more Pollyanna than Cassandra; (73) straighten posture/power pose; (74) practice a bit more extraversion; (75) be with others, share, & make new friends; (76) take a walk-and-talk; (77) expand your circle of empathy; (78) find village roles you can play (elder leading a group; cook at a festival); (79) engage in meaningful, ecological, hopeful work & projects; (80) bring to a cause your solidarity, rebellion, & imagination (i.e., come under a spell of Dionysus—a theatrical ecstasy—but just for fun—don’t play it too seriously); (81) watch comedy (be ironic, smile, or laugh, stimulating endorphins); (82) notice the poet’s fictions (the dramas of imagination, Milton’s “The sport of winds”); (83) play the poet’s fiction’s light, not locking in on one model or narrative, but noticing that “there is more than one way to look at a thing” (Lucille Clifton); (84) subtract imagination from the poet’s fictions & see what’s left (Wallace Stevens); (85) fake it till you become it: reflect on how it is to think, feel, & behave at your best—and how your current thought/behavior is adaptive or maladaptive; (86) open to pain (it’s positive to accept the negative)—and don’t make pain important—now choose (Nietzsche & Sartre).


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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, beauty, Bernie Sanders, david hume, edward feser, God, Lucretius, meditation, philosophy, poetry, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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