The Art of Listening to Your Body: The Autonomic Nervous System

lifestyle medicine Nov 15, 2022

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling our bodily functions that happen automatically, such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate. It also plays a role in the fight or flight response through the sympathetic nervous system and the rest and digest response through the parasympathetic nervous system. It is important for us to know the difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states of the nervous system so that we can know the signs of nervous system imbalance and make adjustments as needed.

If we ignore signs our body is sending us, we may experience unpleasant physical symptoms or prolong a health flareup. We can make it a practice to periodically take a pause and check in with our body- We may notice tension in our shoulders, holding our breath, or our heart racing when we spend a little too much time in the sympathetic state, or fight or flight mode. Ideally, we should take this as information from our body, signaling that we may need to take a breath, slow down, or rest.. But how often do we actually listen to our bodies and honor what they need in the moment?

Our society promotes constant productivity and busyness, leading us to ignore signals of fatigue, hunger, or stress. In order to regain balance and give our bodies what we need, we first have to understand the signs to look for when we are in either an overactive sympathetic state or parasympathetic state.


Signs and symptoms that your autonomic nervous system has been in an overactive or dominant sympathetic state:

  • cold hands and feet
  • Irregular cortisol graph
  • Digestive issues
  • anxiety/panic attacks
  • fight or flight response
  • Insomnia
  • high blood pressure/high cholesterol
  • Excessively jumpy/jittery


Signs and symptoms of a dominant parasympathetic state:

  • Freeze/collapse response as opposed to fight or flight
  • excessively slowed/irregular pulse
  • Irregular bowel movements (constipation/diarrhea)
  • Irregular breathing
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen eyes, swollen/stiff joints


By tuning into our bodily cues and honoring them, we can begin to lead a more balanced lifestyle. This includes listening to our hunger signals and eating when we are truly hungry, rather than eating out of stress. It means prioritizing rest and sleep when our bodies are tired, rather than pushing through with endless cups of coffee and determination. It means knowing when you may indeed need a bit of a push when you're stuck in a slump. And it means finding outlets for managing stress, whether that’s through exercise, prayer, and meditation, talking with a friend or mentor, deep breathing, or simply taking a break from our to-do lists.

Learning to listen may feel uncomfortable at first, especially if you did not grow up in a system that values rest, relaxation, and play. Finding the balance between rest, work, and activity is a very individualized practice. It takes time and consistent adjustments over time, as what works for you in this season may change in the next. Give yourself grace and the freedom to adapt, grow, and make changes over time. Honor your body, for it is the vessel in which you will carry out your life’s purpose!

Take a moment now to pause, notice your breath, and check in with how your body feels. What does it need in this moment? Listen, and honor that need. Your body will thank you for it.





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Wright KP;Drake AL;Frey DJ;Fleshner M;Desouza CA;Gronfier C;Czeisler CA; “Influence of Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Misalignment on Cortisol, Inflammatory Markers, and Cytokine Balance.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, U.S. National Library of Medicine,



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