In today’s fast-paced world, managing stress and anxiety is a must. Whether it’s due to work pressures, personal challenges, or the general hustle and bustle of life, stress can take a toll on our physical and mental well-being. But did you know that your body has a built-in stress management system?
Enter the vagus nerves, a remarkable and often under appreciated component of our nervous system that plays a vital role in managing stress.
In this blog post, we will explore the fascinating connection between the vagus nerve’s role in managing stress and anxiety.
Before delving into how the vagus nerves affect stress, it’s essential to understand the stress response itself. When you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare you to face a perceived threat by increasing heart rate, constricting blood vessels, and redirecting blood flow to vital organs and muscles.
This physiological response is critical for survival but can become problematic when stress becomes chronic. In today’s world, our body’s perception of what qualifies as a “perceived threat” is often altered. Our past experiences and beliefs influence what we see as a threat, and previously non-threatening circumstances can become triggering stressors.
While our body still accurately responds to true evolutionary threats (think being chased by an animal!), we may also develop a stress response to things such as social situations, work or personal conflict, or overstimulation.
Luckily, we have a built-in counter-mechanism to the sympathetic stress response: our parasympathetic nervous system!
The vagus nerves, also known as cranial nerve 10, are the longest of the cranial nerves, extending from the brainstem, down the neck, and into the abdomen, with one nerve on each side of the body. They are the primary nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s rest and relaxation responses. In a parasympathetic state, the body is relaxed, heart rate and breathing rate are lowered, and digestion is favored. The opposing system is the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. In a sympathetic state, the body is alert, senses are heightened, heart rate and breathing rate are elevated, and digestion is inhibited. Because the vagus nerves are the primary nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system, they act as a counterbalance to the stress response. When activated, they promote relaxation and dampen the body’s stress reactions. Here’s how it works:
Heart Rate Regulation: The vagus nerve plays a pivotal role in controlling heart rate. When activated, it slows down the heart rate, helping to counteract the rapid pulse associated with stress. This is known as the “vagal brake.”
Reducing Inflammation: Chronic stress can lead to inflammation, which is linked to various health issues. The vagus nerve helps regulate inflammation by sending signals to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory molecules.
Digestive Health: The vagus nerve also influences digestion. It promotes optimal digestion by increasing blood flow to the digestive organs and facilitating the release of digestive enzymes. Stress can disrupt this process, leading to digestive problems.
Relaxation Response: Activation of the vagus nerve triggers the relaxation response, which lowers blood pressure, reduces muscle tension, and calms the mind.
Improved Mood: The vagus nerve is closely tied to mood regulation. Stimulating the vagus nerve can increase the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of well-being.
Now that we understand the importance of the vagus nerve in stress management, the next question is, how can we activate it to our advantage? Here are some strategies:
Deep Breathing: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most effective ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. Try practicing mindfulness or meditation techniques that focus on your breath and check out our video on proper oblique breathing.
Box Breathing: Inhale over 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale over 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.
Physiological Sigh: Take a series of consecutive inhales through the nose, followed by a long exhale through the mouth: the first inhale through the nose is long, followed by a short pause, then one more quick inhale through the nose, followed by a long exhale out of the mouth.
Physical Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerves
Laugh, Hum, or Sing: Laughing, humming, and singing all heartily activate the vagus nerves and promote relaxation. Spend time with friends who make you laugh, enjoy a funny movie, or sing your heart out on your next commute!
Gargle Water: morning and night for 30-60 seconds.
Cold Shower: Turn the water as cold as you can tolerate and let it wash over your head for 30 seconds. Focus on controlling your breath by taking slow, deep breaths into the belly.
Psychological Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerves
Social Connection: Healthy relationships and social support can boost vagal tone. Spend time with loved ones and build strong connections.
Gratitude Journaling: Write down or say out loud a few things that you’re grateful for at the end of your day.
Meditation: Even a few minutes can help! If you need guidance, try using an app, like Calm or Headspace, or try listening to a guided non-sleep deep rest.
These exercises can be used to help you relax during times of heightened stress or, like most things in your body, you can strengthen the response of your vagus nerves, also known as your vagal tone. Similar to how regular exercise improves your resting heart rate, practicing these exercises regularly can improve resting vagal tone, improving your resistance to stress.
The vagus nerves, often overlooked in discussions about stress, play a crucial role in helping our bodies manage and recover from stress. Understanding how to activate and enhance vagal tone can significantly improve our overall well-being.
By incorporating practices like breathing techniques, meditation, laughter, and nurturing social connections into our lives, we can harness the power of the vagus nerves and lead healthier, more balanced lives in our stress-filled world.
So, take a deep breath, relax, and let your vagus nerve be your ally in the battle against stress.