When we feel stressed and anxious, it’s usually because of our overly sensitive brain. Hardwired to watch for danger and sound the alarm when it senses it (whether it’s a hungry bear heading your way or an ambiguous email from your boss), our brain triggers stress and chronic anxiety when we stay in a fight or flight state.
Getting out of this state is not always easy, but the body has a secret weapon that we can take advantage of: the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve, the longest in our body, connects our brain to many organs (vagus means “wanderer” in Latin, which is explained by the fact that the nerve wanders in our body).
The vagus nerve does many things, but the one that interests us here is how it triggers a relaxation response in the body and increases what is called vagal tone.
As the vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, when stimulated it increases what is known as vagal tone; it slows our heart rate and breathing and calms our nervous system.
And the best! We can stimulate our vagus nerve, here’s how?
Breathing exercises are often recommended when dealing with stress and anxiety, and here’s another great reason to try them. When we breathe deeply and slowly from our abdomen, we stimulate the vagus nerve. Try exhaling longer than you inhale, as this helps activate our parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response).
Meditations on love and kindness, in particular, are said to stimulate the vagus nerve and help you feel more relaxed and connected.
Singing is an often overlooked activity that can be incredibly beneficial to our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. One of the stimulating effects of singing is its ability to engage the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve runs from the brainstem to the diaphragm and influences communication between the brain and other organs in our body. It helps us regulate heart rate, breathing, digestion, etc.
By engaging in activities that stimulate this nerve, such as singing or deep breathing, we can give ourselves a dopamine boost while regulating cortisol levels in our bodies. Singing also activates the muscles in the mouth, which helps to improve facial expressions and boost serotonin naturally. As a bonus, focusing on singing forces us to quickly slow our breathing rate, which brings us to a state of calm and relaxation.
Massaging any part of the body is great for rest and relaxation, but it is believed that massaging the feet in particular can help stimulate the vagus nerve. Try self-massage, ask a partner or treat yourself to a reflexology session and see how you feel. You can also gently massage your neck, shoulders, and behind your ears for more direct contact with the vagus nerve.
Immersion in cold water.
Exposing yourself to cold may not seem relaxing, but in addition to triggering our relaxation response, cold is believed to reduce inflammation in the body. Try immersing your face in cold water or, if you’re feeling brave, taking a cold shower. Start with short exposures and increase them if you find it helpful.
Most of us know that exercise triggers our body to release feel-good hormones, but it turns out it also stimulates the vagus nerve. The trick is to find a move you enjoy so it’s fun, not a chore. Try different exercises and see what works for you. We’re big proponents of dancing in our living room to our favorite songs for a better mood.
Connect with others.
Isolation can exacerbate stress, as we feel alone in our struggles. Connecting with others and feeling a sense of belonging is a fantastic way to take a step back and calm our nervous system. Call a friend, host a family reunion, or reach out to co-workers to rekindle that sense of belonging.
In addition to stimulating the vagus nerve, laughter can help lower blood pressure and improve mood. Embrace your goofy side, find joy in the little things, and laugh often with loved ones to feel the full benefits.
These tools are great to incorporate into your life, they help you ‘hack’ your body and reduce stress and anxiety. However, some of us may need a helping hand to root out the cause of our stress and anxiety.