The Part of the Brain That Stops Anxiety and How to Use It

Your parasympathetic nervous system can protect you. But you have to turn it on.

Posted Feb 05, 2021

Parapluie. That's the French word for umbrella. Para means against. Pluie means rain. A parapluie keeps a rainstorm from getting you soaking wet.

Parasympathetic. That is the name of the system that calms you. Para, again, means against and sympathetic refers to the sympathetic nervous system, the system that revs you up when stress hormones are released. The parasympathetic nervous system is designed by nature to oppose the sympathetic nervous system and keep it from causing hyperarousal.

Just as your parapluie can protect you from a rain shower, your parasympathetic system can protect you from a deluge of stress hormones anywhere. But only if you open it. For example, when a plane drops in turbulence, everyone's amygdala releases stress hormones. Passengers who have their parasympathetic system open aren't bothered. But passengers with their parasympathetic system closed feel troubled. If their parasympathetic system remains closed as one downward movement after another releases one shot of stress hormones after another, hyperarousal develops, which causes an urge to escape. Since escape is impossible, panic may result.

Few of us would walk around in a rainstorm with a closed umbrella. But we do something similar emotionally. We carry around a closed parasympathetic system while getting showered with stress hormones. We do that because of two things.

  1. We do not know we have an anti-stress system, and focus on limiting or avoiding stress.
  2. We know we have a parasympathetic system, and activate it using breathing exercises. Though exhaling activates the parasympathetic system, inhaling deactivates it. It's like opening and closing your parapluie repeatedly in a rainstorm as a way to stay dry. 

Neurological researcher Stephen Porges found a way to keep the parasympathetic open for an extended period of time. He calls his discovery the social engagement system. The parasympathetic opens—and stays open—when another person's face, voice, or touch signals you that you are safe in their presence.

When a child is securely attached, their parent's calming face, voice, and touch become associated with the stressors the child encounters. The child carries these parasympathetic-opening connections with them into adulthood. When faced with uncertainty or stress, though the parent is not physically present, the psychologically present parent opens the parasympathetic.

If we weren't fortunate enough to develop these connections during childhood, we can acquire them now. Working with fearful fliers, I found their anxiety could be controlled by connecting the challenging moments of flight to a memory of saying wedding vows or of getting engaged.

I didn't know why these experiences controlled anxiety until I ran across Porges' research that the presence of a physically and emotionally safe person—or the memory of such a person—activates the parasympathetic system. Wedding vows and engagement, moments in which two people signal complete acceptance and mutual safety, fully activate the parasympathetic system. By linking this experience of full parasympathetic opening to flight, anxiety was controlled during flight.

This discovery makes opening the parasympathetic simple. All we need to do is link a physically and emotionally safe friend's face, voice, and touch/body-language to our emotional challenges. We do this two ways:

  1. We link the parasympathetic-opening person to the feeling of getting revved up so that when we start getting revved up, the parasympathetic opens and keeps the sympathetic from going too far.
  2. We pre-link emotionally challenging situations to the calming person's presence. We wouldn’t go to McDonald’s, order a Big Mac, and swallow it whole. Similarly, we break the challenging situation down into bite-size bits and link each bit, one by one, to the parasympathetic-opening person.

Here is one of the exercises from my book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program To End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. To do the exercise, you will need to identify a person who—because they are accepting and non-judgemental—opens your parasympathetic.

Because the amygdala releases stress hormones every time it senses anything nonroutine or unexpected, we experience arousal several times a day. Link your actual feelings of arousal to your friend’s face, voice, and touch. Every time you sense arousal, imagine you see your friend walk into the room, come over to you, and give you a hug (or whatever form of touch is appropriate for your relationship). By imagining this in response to arousal or alarm, you cause the three elements that activate the parasympathetic nervous system—face, voice, and touch—to come immediately to mind.

Let your friend’s presence linger in your mind for a minute or two. You could imagine your friend sitting down with you. You might imagine talking over what triggered you. Hanging out with your friend in this imagined way keeps the parasympathetic nervous system active until whatever stress hormones are present burn off.

In a few days, practicing this exercise will reduce the effect stress hormones have on you. In the following video, parasympathetic opening linking exercises ended a man's panic attacks