Have you heard of the Vagus Nerve? Before we close out 2023 and take some time to rest and recharge, we would like to share some information about this wonder nerve and how you can tap into it to restore a sense of calm during this holiday season.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, starting at the brainstem and running down into the abdomen. It regulates our responses to both our internal and external environment, subconsciously alerting us to danger – the flight, fight, freeze response or alternatively safety – allowing us to relax.
Given that the vagus nerve connects our brain with other major organ systems in our bodies, it has both a mental and physical role in relaxing tension and counteracting stress. Stimulation of this nerve can help restore calm when we are feeling anxious, uncertain, or out of control – feelings which may arise during the festive season. Read on for non-invasive techniques you can use to help manage anxiety and stimulate a faster relaxation response…
- Take long, deep breaths
When we anticipate stress, we tend to hold our breath, increasing anxiety, fear and either a flight, fight or freeze response. Breath control can help us regulate this response:
- Start by taking a deep, slow breath, expanding your diaphragm and widen your rib cage.
- Inhale through your nose and exhale out through your mouth.
- Aim to exhale longer than you inhale – this will trigger a relaxation response.
- Breath-in for 6 counts and out for 10 counts.
- Cold Exposure
Dipping your face into cold water, taking cold showers, or even placing a cold pack or small bag of ice on your face can help stimulate the vagus nerve. Cold exposure helps to lower your flight, flight, freeze response by decreasing your heart rate, stimulating your gut and turning on your immune system.
- Start by immersing your forehead, eyes and cheeks in cold water and slowly build up to cold showers – start with 30 seconds and see how you go.
- Stimulate your vocal cords
Gargling, singing, chanting or humming stimulates the vagal nerve which is connected to your vocal cords at the back of your throat.
- Move your body
Movement of any kind, including dance, stimulates the vagus nerve and is beneficial for both physical and mental health. Consistency is key so choose a form of movement that you enjoy and can engage with often.
Massage is well known for its ability to help us relax…however specific massage of the feet (reflexology) and gentle pressure to the right side of your throat can help stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Maintain good gut health
We all know the effect stress and anxiety can have on our bowels, including nausea and lack of appetite; the connection between gut health and brain function is well established (see here).
Therefore, consuming adequate amounts of fiber and maintaining good gut bacteria, perhaps with the help of probiotics can help stimulate the vagus nerve, reducing anxiety and improving mood.
- And finally…Laughter
Positive social engagements and emotions help stimulate the vagus nerve. Having a good laugh can improve your mood, reduce stress and counteract anxious feelings.
We hope you have a relaxing and enjoyable festive season and feel a little more empowered knowing that you don’t always have to let stress negatively impact your mind and body. Awareness of the role the vagus nerve has in reducing anxiety and stress can lead to long-term improvements in mood, mental health, and resilience.
Happy Holidays from the Team at Okay Counselling.
For more information see the links below:
Nall, R. (2020). Your parasympathetic nervous system explained. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/parasympathetic-nervous-system
Psychology Today. (2019). Vagus nerve. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/vagus-nerve
If you need additional support over the holiday break – see the links provided in our last blog