Self-care that works

research-backed ways to help your body rest and recover

Written BY

Helen Lawson Williams

PhD in psychology, 15+ years in consulting and corporate leadership, respected coach and mentor, committed to solving burnout

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November 22, 2023

If the words "self care" cause you an involuntary eye-roll, rest assured you're in good company. This is not a post about bubble baths and scented candles. Instead, it's a post about your parasympathetic nervous system, why it's one of your best friends in beating burnout, and the evidence-based things you can do to activate it.

I'm going to keep this post live, updating it as new research comes out, so you might want to bookmark it and check back anytime you're looking to expand your rest-and-recovery repertoire.

What is the parasympathetic nervous system?

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is often called the rest-and-digest system, or sometimes the breed-and-feed system. Its job is to help your body get back to normal functioning after experiencing stress, taking over from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) when a challenge or threat has been dealt with. The PNS inhibits adrenaline, slows heart rate, and reduces blood pressure. Once your body is back to calm and safe mode, the PNS then also runs important parts of normal functioning, like digestion and sex.

Chronic stress can cause long-term changes to the interplay between the PNS and SNS, reducing PNS activity and in turn increasing the risk of serious health issues like cardiovascular disease, upper respiratory infection, autoimmune diseases, and depression.

This means that if you've been dealing with prolonged and/or intense stress, you may need to make a little extra effort to switch your SNS off and get your PNS back to full strength. That effort is critical: reversing the effects of stress on your body is possible, but your PNS needs to be in charge.

What can I do to get my PNS back in the driver's seat?

The good news is that the PNS benefits from activities that you probably already love. Bonus: they're almost all free. Here's a good list to get you started (references at the bottom in case that's your jam):


·      Yoga or Tai Chi, when done mindfully (Wall, 2005).

·      Yoga and breathing exercises (Bijlani et al., 2005).

·      Exercise (Blumenthal et al., 2005).


Connect with others

·      Having an enjoyable meal with family (Story & Neumark-Sztainer, 2005; Fruh et al.,2011).

·      Helping someone (Boyatzis et al., 2006; Kram & Hall, 1989).

·      Caring for others and feeling cared for (Insel, 1997; Sapolsky, 2004).

·      Caring for and playing with pets (Miller et al., 2015; Polheber & Matchock, 2014).

·      Laughter with others (Greene et al., 2017; Sliter et al., 2014; Wijewardena et al.,2017).

·      Quality time spent with spouse or partner (Lapp et al., 2010), or even just imagining it for 5 minutes (Berry & Worthington, 2001).

·      Playing with a child or generally being playful (Magnuson & Barnett, 2013; Qian & Yarnal, 2011).

·      Frequent volunteering (Harris & Thoresen, 2005; Musick & Wilson, 2003).


Connect with nature

·      Taking a walk in nature (Park et al., 2010; Bratman et al., 2015; Capaldi et al., 2014).

·      Allotment gardening (Hawkins et al., 2013).


Reflect, practise mindfulness

·      Reflecting upon or discussing one’s greater purpose in life (Schaefer & Coleman, 1992; Steger, 2012).

·      Meditation (Goleman& Davidson, 2017; Good et al., 2016).

·      “Centering prayer” (Ferguson et al., 2010).




Berry, J. W., & Worthington,E. L., Jr. (2001). Forgivingness, relationship quality, stress while imagining relationship events, and physical and mental health. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48(4), 447–455.

Bijlani, R. L., Vempati, R. P., Yadav, R. K.,Ray, R. B., Gupta, V., Sharma, R., Mehta, N., & Mahapatra, S. C.(2005). Abrief but comprehensive lifestyle education program based on yoga reduces riskfactors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. Journal of Alternative & ComplementaryMedicine, 11(2), 267–274.

Blumenthal, J. A., Sherwood, A., Babyak, M.A., Watkins, L. L., Waugh, R., Georgiades, A., Bacon, S. L., Hayano, J.,Coleman, R. E., & Hinderliter, A. (2005). Effects of exercise and stressmanagement training on markers of cardiovascular risk in patients with ischemicheart disease: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 293(13), 1626–1634.

Boyatzis, R. E., Smith, M. L., & Blaize,N. (2006). Developing sustainable leaders through coaching and compassion. Academy of Management Learning &Education, 5(1), 8 –24.

Bratman, G. N., Daily,G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of natureexperience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41–50.

Capaldi, C. A., Dopko,R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between natureconnectedness and happiness: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 976.

Ferguson, J. K.,Willemsen, E. W., & Castañeto, M. V. (2010). Centering prayer as a healingresponse to everyday stress: A psychological and spiritual process. Pastoral Psychology, 59(3), 305–329.

Fruh, S. M., Fulkerson,J. A., Mulekar, M. S., Kendrick, L. A. J., & Clanton, C. (2011). Thesurprising benefits of the family meal. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 7(1), 18 –22.

Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. (2017). Altered traits. Avery.

Good, D. J., Lyddy, C.J., Glomb, T. M., Bono, J. E., Brown, K. W., Duffy, M. K., Baer, R. A., Brewer,J. A., & Lazar, S. W. (2016). Contemplating mindfulness at work anintegrative review. Journal of Management, 42(1), 114–142.

Greene, C. M., Morgan,J. C., Traywick, L. S., & Mingo, C. A. (2017). Evaluation of alaughter-based exercise program on health and self-efficacy for exercise. The Gerontologist, 57(6), 1051–1061.

Harris, A. H., &Thoresen, C. E. (2005). Volunteering is associated with delayed mortality inolder people: Analysis of the longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Health Psychology, 10(6), 739–752.

Hawkins, J. L., Mercer,J., Thirlaway, K. J., & Clayton, D. A. (2013). “Doing” gardening and “being”at the allotment site: Exploring the benefits of allotment gardening for stressreduction and healthy aging. Ecopsychology, 5(2), 110–125.Insel, 1997

Kram, K. E., & Hall,D. T. (1989). Mentoring as an antidote to stress during corporate trauma. Human Resource Management, 28(4), 493–510.

Lapp, C. A., Taft, L.B., Tollefson, T., Hoepner, A., Moore, K., & Divyak, K. (2010). Stress andcoping on the home front: Guard and reserve spouses searching for a new normal.Journal of FamilyNursing, 16(1), 45–67.

Magnuson, C. D., &Barnett, L. A. (2013). The playful advantage: How playfulness enhances copingwith stress. Leisure Sciences, 35(2), 129–144.

Miller, S. C., Kennedy,C. C., DeVoe, D. C., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., & Kogan, L. (2009). An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoös, 22(1), 31–42.

Musick, M. A., &Wilson, J. (2003). Volunteering and depression: The role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science & Medicine, 56(2), 259–269.

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu,Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiologicaleffects of Shinrinyoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing):Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18–26.

Polheber, J. P., &Matchock, R. L. (2014). The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heartrate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 37(5), 860–867.

Qian, X. L., &Yarnal, C. (2011). The role of playfulness in the leisure stress-coping processamong emerging adults: An SEM analysis. Leisure/Loisir, 35(2), 191–209.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers (3rd ed.). Harper Collins.

Schaefer, S. E., &Coleman, E. (1992). Shifts in meaning, purpose, and values following adiagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection among gay men. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 5(1–2), 13–29.

Sliter, M., Kale, A.,& Yuan, Z. (2014). Is humor the best medicine? The buffering effect ofcoping humor on traumatic stressors in firefighters. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(2), 257–272.

Steger, M. F. (2012).Experiencing meaning in life: Optimal functioning at the nexus of spirituality,psychopathology, and wellbeing. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning (2nd ed., pp. 165–184). Routledge.

Story, M., &Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). A perspective on family meals: Do they matter? Nutrition Today, 40(6), 261–266.Wall, 2005).

Wijewardena, N., Härtel,C. E., & Samaratunge, R. (2017). Using humor and boosting emotions: An affect-based study of managerial humor, employees’ emotions and psychological capital. Human Relations, 70(11), 1316–1341.

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