Once a week, I put my guitar in the backseat and go to band practice. My band is made up of other adults who dabble in music, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that we’re not very good, and despite our best efforts will continue to not be very good for the foreseeable future.
But the funny thing is, those few hours of banging on our instruments are some of the happiest of the week for me. And on the drive back after practice, I feel within my body a warm, happy glow. When I get home I have more patience and attention for my family, and I’ve noticed that I even sleep better on band practice evenings.
What causes all these good vibes? It isn’t the power of music. It’s the healing power of the parasympathetic nervous system, and you too can hack into this system by taking up a meaningful hobby.
In evolutionary terms, your body has two states it needs to be in. Sometimes it needs to quickly react to the environment (to move in sympathy with the surroundings). You might need to run from a threat, fight off an attacker, or even freeze absolutely still in order to survive. This is the sympathetic nervous system, popularly known as the fight or flight response.
People think that fight or flight only kicks off in response to danger, but it’s also present in moments of opportunity. That thing you could be running towards might be food. That fight could be one you started to gain territory for your tribe. And you might be staying absolutely still because you’re hunting prey.
All these moments have excitement, danger and opportunity, and they call for a cascade of physical changes from the body to step up to the challenge. Your breath becomes short and shallow to maximize oxygen intake. Your blood pumps towards your limbs to allow faster movement. Your eyes dilate to let in more visual information. Your blood fills with the “action hormones” adrenaline and cortisol.
This systemic upshifting of survival functions comes with an accompanying downshift of less crucial tasks. When your sympathetic nervous system is engaged, things like long-term planning, immune function, and digestion are suppressed. All of your energy is going to survive the challenge in front of you, the rest can wait for later.
If you were to live in the fight or flight response all day every day, you’d quickly strip your gears and end up sick. You can’t run that hot all the time. This is why chronic stress is so undermining to your health. You need to spend a certain part of your day accessing the other response system that evolution has given you. This is the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and relax response.
The rest and relax system is everything that fight or flight isn’t. Your heart rate slows. Your breath becomes deeper and longer. Your muscles ease up and blood flows towards your organs, which are busy using this rest time to recuperate and repair. Your immune system kicks into gear, your digestion gets rumbling, and the body seeks to return to homeostatic balance. All of this is orchestrated through the bloodstream by batches of the feel good hormones you’ve heard so much about — dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
A healthy, happy life will have you correctly shifting up into fight or flight, then back down into rest and relax throughout the day. This yin and yang of hormones is what life is all about.
The modern world has proven very good at exciting the sympathetic nervous systems. All day long your fight or flight response is being triggered by lights, sounds, traffic, news, and the stresses of work culture with its deadlines, interoffice conflicts, and pressure to perform. But what modern life isn’t very good at is letting your rest and repair system have a turn at the wheel. Most people spend their day in various stages of chronic stress, and never truly unwind the way the body is designed to.
One way people try to elicit a rest and relax response is to schedule time to “do nothing.” They might think going on vacation and sitting by the pool for a few hours will get them to relax, but when they actually get there they soon find after a few minutes they feel squirrelly and desperate to do something.
The mere absence of external stressors doesn’t make the parasympathetic system switch on. The human mind is quite capable of manufacturing internal mental stressors, even sitting by a beautiful swimming pool. It turns out that the parasympathetic nervous system does best when it can work in a tag-team relationship with the sympathetic nervous system.
The body is craving not just to relax,
but to relax after a danger or opportunity has been successfully navigated.
This is where hobbies come into play.
When I’m practicing with my amateur band, I put myself in a low key fight or flight situation. I don’t want to mess up my part, I don’t want to look bad in front of the others, and I’m completely absorbed in the details of the song at hand. If you looked at my hormone levels during practice, you’d find all the trademarks of a stress response, a higher heart rate, shallow breathing, adrenaline, cortisol, etc…
But unlike a job that throws new stresses at you every hour, the band practice actually comes to an end, and usually with some success. The song sounds ok and the band is slowly getting better.
The brain and body exhale and relax. The parasympathetic response gets the cue that it’s time to flood the bloodstream with rest and repair hormones, and I get the afterglow reward as I drive home, and for the rest of the evening, all the way to a good night's sleep.
This is the power of a hobby. It gives you a healthy, low-stakes way to create fight or flight stimulation, and then reap the parasympathetic rewards afterwards!
I use my band practice, but this effect can be created from any hobby. A painter has it after being absorbed in a tricky bit of work on the canvas. A hiker has it after a tough section that’s rewarded with a great view. A recreational soccer player feels it after a weekend game. Anything will work as long as you find it absorbing and challenging enough to “stress” you in a way that allows successful completion of the task.
As adults, we often think of hobbies as frivolous luxuries that fall to the bottom of the priority list. But having something outside of work and family that creates this sympathetic-parasympathetic dynamic is HUGELY important to your health and happiness. It’s one of the hallmarks of people who live long and vibrant lives.
It’s easy to tell yourself you’ll pick up your hobby “when you have time” or “when things settle down”. This does a huge disservice to your quality of life. Don’t wait until you're old and frail to start a hobby which could have prevented you from becoming old and frail. Be proactive and cultivate hobbies NOW. The parasympathetic nervous system is waiting to boost your quality of life, if you’ll only put the key in the lock. And a good hobby is that key!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder