October 3, 2021


Minute read

After a Long Day, Binging on Netflix or Having a Drink May Sound Appealing, But Wreak Havoc on Your Body. Here Are 10 Nervous System-Friendly Ways To Unwind

You start the day off strong, with a 5:30am wake-up. You got in your morning exercise and walked your dog. You worked all day, sat in on 7 video conferences, and even managed to cook some nourishing meals, meditate, and call your mom.

It’s been a busy day and now it’s 6:00pm and you’re ready to pop open a bottle of your favorite Burgundy and binge your favorite rom-com series.

I get it. I really do. If you’re feeling exhausted and overstimulated and feel that doing anything other than oozing into the couch is just too much, you’re definitely not alone.

But what if that’s exactly the opposite of what your brain and body need? 

Your Brain, the Exec — And How to Give It a Break

You can think of your brain as a busy executive. But this particular executive can only make so many decisions each day before it has to delegate tasks to its team of autopilot robots — and when they take over, things can sort of just happen.

The executive part of your brain is called the pre-frontal cortex, and it’s where all decisions get made. But after a long day of decision making, it gets fatigued and hands-off decisions it should be making to the robot-like basal ganglia, where we form habits and tend to operate on autopilot. 

That’s why, after a long day, it is so much easier to fall into habitual numbing patterns, like that glass of wine or Netflix, rather than coming up with something new and creative to soothe your tired soul.

While having that glass of wine or watching a show is not, in and of itself horrible, you have to make a choice. While they may temporarily make you feel relaxed, they are ultimately exacerbating your strained nervous system’s inclination to function sympathetically. Alternatively, you can choose an activity that will help your nervous system to truly restore and recharge. So, if at the end of a long day, you want to feel rested, you need to choose carefully.

If you want to break out of these habits without forcing your pre-frontal cortex back into service, the secret is having a pre-programmed menu of options that you can choose from with little thought. 

If even that sounds a bit overwhelming, I’ve come up with a list of ten of my favorite wind-down activities that are absolutely relaxing in their own ways, and that don’t involve your couch, a remote, or a headache the next morning! 

meditation is a great way to unwind and calm your nervous system

1. Sink into a Nervous System Soothing Soak!  

A warm bath is one of my ultimate favorite ways to unwind after a long day, on a Sunday afternoon, or honestly any time I have an extra 30 minutes. It’s no wonder given that our bodies are made of 70% water.

The warm water subtly cools your internal body temperature allowing for a better night of sleep. In addition, research has found that balneotherapy treatments, of 38-42 degrees Celcius decrease c-reactive protein (CRP levels). This reduction means that our Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is soothed, allowing for activation of parasympathetic nervous system function, and a reduction in reactivity. Definitely helpful after a long day of meetings! 

2. Write It Down

Okay, I get it — it’s been a crazy day with clients making you want to literally pull your hair out, your wife giving you grief about calling your kids, and having to skip your afternoon workout. While you could release your pent-up frustration verbally, or resort to that cracking open a bottle of wine – that’s often a recipe for unresolved issues. Enter journaling. Translating that frustration, dreams, feelings, and sensations onto a blank page of a personalized journal is a brilliant way of productively getting it “out” — without destroying your relationships!

3. Move Your Body!

Your body is meant for motion — which is why adding in a little extra movement is a great way to unwind! Now, I’m not necessarily talking about “logging miles” or getting in vigorous “exercise” (although some find evening exercise to be very cathartic). Instead, I’m talking about finding pleasure and relaxation in moving your body mindfully.

That may translate into taking a walk through the park or cranking up your favorite radio station and whipping out your favorite dance moves (maybe even while you tidy up your house!). When you add in a bit of movement, you release all the happy hormones, so you just feel better. But researcher Todd Manini at the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida also found that simple tasks, like picking up your house, can have a dramatic impact on your health, cognitive function, and NEAT score. You can learn more about it here! 

4. Chill Out at h”OM”e

You’ve probably had a bunch of people — your therapist, your doctor, your mom, some weird guy at a mixer — recommend meditation. And you know what, all those people may have a point. Meditation allows for a gentle de-stimulation at the end of the day and brings you back home — to the sensations in your body, to emotions in your heart, and to awareness of what’s going on between your ears. After a long day, a guided meditation track is an excellent way to chill out as an alternative to Netflix or that dirty martini. New to meditation? You can try out our Free Introduction to Meditation program here!  

5. Call Your Mom

Chatting with your mom or a loved friend is a great way to re-connect with those you love. You get the opportunity to reminisce about fun memories and it saves you a little blue light exposure. And let’s be honest, we could all use a little TLC and laughter in our über serious world. 

Couple cooking dinner

6. Plan a Fun, Inventive Dinner With Your Partner

For this one, you may want to plan ahead with a little grocery shopping, but turning on romantic music (or a playlist inspired by your meal), lighting your favorite candles, and cooking together is a great way to unwind, rekindle the romance, and evoke the sensuality and pleasure that exists in preparing a nourishing meal. Dancing optional (but highly recommended!).

7. Sit With Some Symphony

I know classical music isn’t everyone’s jam, but one of my favorite evening activities is to turn on a playlist, concerto, or symphony by one of my favorite composers (I’m a classically trained singer, so I have LOTS of favorites), and simply listen for an hour or so. It’s an exercise in re-sensitization, mindfulness, and curiosity. Even if you don’t consider yourself a classical music fan, I’d encourage you to give it a go. You can try it out here with this well-known Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, known as the Pastoral

8. Whip Out the Scrabble Board

One of my and Charlie’s favorite alternatives to watching a movie is playing Scrabble. Admittedly we do get a little competitive as far as who’s elaborate amalgam can effectuate the most laudation, but the point is that spending quality time together, playing a game, laughing, and yes, a little healthy competition, is far more rewarding than spending time on the couch!

9. Crawl Under the Covers

Who could use a little extra oxytocin? At the end of a long day, there’s nothing better than curling up under the covers for a long-overdue snuggle session. Yes, you can light your favorite candles, dim the lights, and play “that song” – but this time doesn’t need to be about getting frisky (not saying it can’t be about that! 😉 ) But taking a few minutes to decompress with your partner, slowing your breaths together, and maybe sharing whispered conversation under the sheets can do wonders to help you relax and unwind!

10. Read Out Loud

This is not something for the sleepy or for too late into the night, but one of my favorite ways to round up the evening is reading out loud — or even better, being read to! Bonus points to you if you have a hard copy book or a device with an epaper screen to avoid the negative impact of blue light. This is not just a great bonding experience, but is a great alternative to scrolling on Instagram just moments before nodding off to dreamland. 

Taking a walk is a great way to unwind and relax your nervous system

Plan Not To Fall Into Habituations & Heal Your Nervous System

You know the axiom, “fail to plan, plan to fail.” If we want to avoid falling into mindless patterns and use our downtime to help sustain our nervous systems, we need to do a little planning in advance. Part of that process is having some readily available alternatives to our easy and stimulation-feeding inclinations.

While I’m not saying sharing a glass of wine and great conversation is bad – and believe me, as a right bank Bordeaux fangirl, I’m not! – it’s essential that you enjoy them mindfully and with intention.

These ten simple practices can help you wind down from the day, de-stimulate, and soothe your nervous system in a productive way! And let’s be honest, after long days with never-ending to-do lists, making the most of your evening and using it to recharge is an absolute must! 

Image credits: Jason Briscoe

About the Author: Laura Araujo

Passionate about accessible education and evidence-based wellness, Laura founded The MAPS Institute, an educational wellness editorial and platform. Aside from her passion for research and educating, Laura is a classically trained vocalist, sound therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga and Restorative Yoga. She is the creator of the MAPS (Mindfulness, Activation, Purpose, and Surrender) philosophy and is in continual pursuit of helping her students and herself find balance amid the chaos around and within them. When not sifting through Nature Magazine, complaining about their paywalls, she enjoys trying new wine varietals, experimenting in the kitchen, riding her bicycle (sometimes cross-country), and spending time with her husband Charlie, cockapoo Miles, and expected baby girl, Ella.  Click here to follow the MAPS Institute on social media.



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