Sympathetics Vs. Parasympathetics

Imagine you are about to give the biggest presentation of your life. You heart starts racing, sweat drips down your armpits, and your eyes dilate. You are ready and alert; it is because your sympathetic nervous system, a part of your autonomic nervous system, has kicked in and is controlling your body. However, we can only be that alert for a short time. It causes a lot of stress on our bodies especially our heart and other internal organs. We need our parasympathetic nervous system to activate to allow you to “rest and digest” and start the healing process.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the other component of the autonomic nervous system and is activated when we are relaxed. It allows us to slow our heart rate, digest our food, and rest our eyes. We need that relaxation because only when we take a break can we heal. In Chinese Medicine terms these two nervous systems are the yin and yang of our body. They get us to a balance state.

The problem is that today, people are constantly stressed with work, life, and the work/life balance. They feel like there is no answer to their cycle of no sleep, anxiousness, and eventually pain or sickness. Often people ask me, “How do I relax? I have no time.” Acupuncture helps—a lot: it turns on the patient’s parasympathetic nervous system letting the patient relax and then recuperate.

In a treatment, a practitioner will ask the patient questions look at their tongue and feel their pulse. From there they will administer needles and then leave the patient in the room alone to relax, for a period from 40 minutes to an hour. With this time carved out for one’s self—itself a challenge in today’s society—patients learn to deal with their thoughts without looking at a phone; the acupuncture helps them enter a dream world and calm down. Just the practice of being alone with one’s thoughts can help patients activate their parasympathetic nervous system.

Many different points can help calm down a patient and activate the parasympathetics. There is a specific point in the ear called the sympathetic point that helps accelerate the process. The point is located towards the top of the ear and it helps with any disruption in the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system’s goal is to achieve homeostasis (balance) in the body by turning on and off the sympathetics and parasympathetic. By inserting this point, a person who constantly feels stressed will loosen up easier.

Those moments when we are in sympathetic mode are some of the best moments in our lives. They are the moments when we scored the winning basket, kissed the love of our life, started a new journey, or got the job of our dreams. It feels good but only for a short time. We cannot maintain that high intensity all day. There is no way our bodies will survive. Being in the parasympathetic phase isn’t as exciting. It may even be boring, but we need it.

The comedian Whitney Cummings said during a commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania, “Don’t confuse being busy with being productive.” Acupuncture administered at the parasympathetic activation points can help trigger the relaxation and healing that enables us to take on bouts of intense productivity when we need to, and unwind when we’re able.

Dana Fine, L.Ac.
Editor In Chief

Dana Fine