All too often, the joy of our favorite holiday rituals can quickly be dampened by stress. As we move into the second year of Pandemic-ridden holidays and plan for 2022, many are still juggling working from home, our children’s schedules, family commitments, and to-do lists – where every item demands our immediate attention. This can quickly turn the holidays from a time of bliss to a time of anxiety, frustration and toxic stress.
Learning to activate the Vagus Nerve can help to reduce the impact of holiday stress
“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” — and all of these experiences lead to health. ~Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic.
But, what exactly is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. In fact, the word “vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs. The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your physical and mental health.
What we must first pay attention to is called the “tone” of your vagus nerve.
Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
The more you learn to increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve.
What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels.
Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high.
If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry – you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and emotional distress.
You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these simple suggestions.
- Cold Exposure Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. You can go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing for a few minutes, go for a long walk and allow yourself to become cold. Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time. You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice-cold water.
- Elongate your Exhale Breathing Deep and slow breathing with an exhale twice as long as your inhale is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
- Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone. I often gargle water before swallowing it. I chant the same mantra every day in the shower, in the hot tub, cleaning my home and walking with the trees. I feel better every time. Wonder why ancient healing practices included chanting mantras 😉
- Probiotics It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. In one study, animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behavior. The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve.
- Meditation Meditation is my favorite relaxation practice and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. Beginning my practice many years ago was not easy and did not come naturally for me. It was downright PAINFUL for me to sit at times. Stick with it. The payoff is undeniable. Find some good, guided meditations to begin and start with 5 minutes a day. Work up to 30. Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others. Meditation also reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” reactions. I feel it in my mindbodyspirit if I miss my meditation time in the morning.
In addition to the above simple practices that you can integrate easily, quickly and with no cost, remember that exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline. And, it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects.
Massage can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal activity and vagal tone on several specific areas of the body. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve.
And finally, as we look toward times with family, friends and loved ones, whether it is through a screen or at the same table, socializing and laughing which can reduce your body’s main stress hormone, cortisol. Recent research has indicated that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood.
So, my advice to all of my coaching clients at this time of year is to hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible. Laugh Out Loud! It is good for you.
The impact of trauma and toxic stress are real.
The capacity that our wise bodymind has for healing is also real.
You don’t have to be controlled by your bodymind. You have the power to bring healing. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, well-being and resilience.
At this time of year, and all year, remember; this is your one, precious life. This moment is all you really have. When your nervous system wants to pull you into regrets of the past and fear of the future, Stop, Drop into the deep, elongated exhales and Roll into one of these practices.
Your bodymindspirit will thank you. And so too, will those around you.
Interested in these and more mindful and trauma-informed practices for your organization or group?
We are scheduling Trainings, Workshops, Healing Circles and are now offering online, self-paced training in 2022. For more information schedule a consult here.
Until we meet again,
Blessings on our journeys, Jules