How to Use Simple Nervous System Practices to Reduce Anxiety

Have you ever felt suffocated by anxiety?

I have.

Anxiety can be all-consuming, dragging us into a relentless fight-or-flight mode. It magnifies life’s challenges, pushing us toward destructive behaviors in a desperate bid to cope.

But here’s the glimmer of hope: we can harness the power of our autonomic nervous system to ease anxiety and other tough emotions like anger and sadness.

First, we need to understand the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest-and-digest or ventral vagal state.

Our ventral vagal state is when we feel safe and connected. In this state, we function at our best, regulating our emotions and managing difficulties effectively. I love to call this the “Green Zone,” and you can read more about all of the wonderful things that accessing this state can offer in the chart below.

Our bodies act as reliable messengers, signaling our current state. For instance, when our sympathetic system is active, we might experience a racing heart or shortness of breath. We may feel overwhelmed, on edge, and even panicked. We don’t feel safe.

A common misconception among those new to this is thinking that being in our ventral vagal state means we are always blissful.

No, it means being grounded enough to handle life’s experiences in an intelligent and nondestructive manner.

This is one of my favorite charts as it illustrates the rollercoaster of feelings and nervous system states that we experience constantly. 

Understanding the Poly-Vagal System


Sit Down
Find a comfortable chair, place your feet on the floor, and feel the connection between your feet and the ground, and your back and the chair. Take a moment to feel held and supported. You might also wrap yourself in a cozy blanket, paying attention to its warmth against your body.

Try Cold Water
Using cold water can activate the vagus nerve, the main component of our parasympathetic system. Splashing your face with cold water or applying a frozen ice pack to your forehead can help you access the ventral vagal state.

Turn to Your Breath
Breathwork can be incredibly helpful when feeling hyper-aroused. Techniques like a big sigh, shaking hands, or stomping feet help complete the stress cycle. Extended exhales, with or without counting, can also stimulate the parasympathetic state. Try inhaling for three counts and exhaling for six, then inhaling for four counts and exhaling for seven or eight.

Use the Name Game
A grounding technique is the “five-four-three-two-one” method, guiding through the senses: name five things you see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. Naming ten things you can see or listening to soothing music can also help down-regulate your system.

Spend Time With a Safe Person
Safe social engagement is linked to the ventral part of the vagus nerve. Spending time with someone who makes you feel safe, loved, and accepted can soothe your system.

Go Outside
Whether it’s a nature walk, feeling the grass under your feet, or simply gazing at trees and flowers, connecting with the natural world can positively affect your autonomic nervous system, helping you to calm down when you’re feeling revved up.

I also offer a journaling program that I use every day as a way to keep my thoughts and feelings sorted, access inner guidance, and keep myself grounded. Click below to subscribe at no charge and access this entire program. 

Jacob Nordby

Jacob Nordby

Jacob Nordby is the author of The Divine Arsonist: A Tale of Awakening, and Blessed Are the Weird – A Manifesto for Creatives. His third book, The Creative Cure, was released by Hierophant Publishing in 2021 with a foreword by Julia Cameron. He is the co-founder of The Institute for Creative Living and also a highly introverted person who can often be found working in the quietest corner of some Boise coffee shop.

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