Parasympathetic Vs. Sympathetic Nervous System The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and Sympathetic Nervous system (SNS) are the two systems within the body's autonomic nervous system. The PNS and SNS help our body react when danger or stress appears. The SNS is responsible for our "flight or fight" response and the PNS is responsible for bringing the body back to a state of rest when danger has passed.
What does the sympathetic nervous system do? The Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the body's response to stress and danger. It activates the fight or flight response, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. It also causes the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which prepare the body for physical activity. Additionally, the sympathetic nervous system inhibits nonessential processes, such as digestion, to focus energy on the necessary functions for survival.
What does the Parasympathetic Nervous System do? The Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for involuntary actions such as breathing, digestion, and heart rate. Without the PNS, the body would not be able to function properly. It produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body. People can learn to trigger their parasympathetic nervous system to immediately reduce their sense of anxiety and stress. This also lifts their mood, strengthens their immune system, and reduces their blood pressure.
Why are these important for birth? These two systems are EXTREMELY important during childbirth because they will determine how you mentally and physically handle the pain of childbirth. If your body views childbirth as fearful and painful, then your SNS will be activated and you will be ready to "Fight or flight" releasing stress hormones into your body. These hormones activate very quickly to help you react to danger. Symptoms of your SNS include a pounding heart, quick breath, tense muscles, sweating, and intense discomfort. Until your brain perceives that the danger has gone, it will continue to release corticotropin and adrenocorticotropic hormones. This can prolong labor and promote a fearful birth. However, if your mind remains in a state of peace and relaxation, then you will continue to activate your PNS through labor. To remain in a state of PNS, one must actively tell themselves that these contractions are necessary and not harmful. There is no reason to react. The PNS will then slow the heartbeat, bring a state of calm, allow breathing to be easy, and work with the body to open fully during contractions. Knowing how to use the PNS to manage your pain during childbirth is very important. It can change someone from having a long to short labor and from a painful to a painless one.
How can you activate your PNS? There are several ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Some techniques include deep breathing exercises, meditation, gentle yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and spending time in nature. It is important to find a technique that works best for you and practice it many times before you are ready for labor. Try to make it a regular part of your routine to easily activate your PNS during labor.
Some simple examples to activate your PNS:
Touch your lips (Your lips have parasympathetic fibers spread throughout them, so touching them activates the PNS. Take one or two fingers and lightly run them over your lips.)
Light stroking massage over tense muscles
Attention Focusing (mindfulness)
Having a person you feel safe around hold you (partner, parent...)
Stop and Rest
Deep, slow breaths
At Suncoast Doula, we will discuss your SNS and PNS during your prenatal classes. We'll specifically find relaxation techniques that work for you and help keep you in a state of PNS. Both your partner and doula will actively be a part of the process of keeping you safe, calm, and relaxed during your labor.