If you read my last post, you should have a fairly good idea about what stress is and why the health and performance of the human body is so prone to being negatively affected by it.
The question addressed in today’s post is: what can you do about it?
The answer is: plenty!
First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge the body’s physiological response to stress begins in the mind. Our subjective perception of any stressor—the importance and meaning we assign to it—ultimately determines the intensity of our physical stress response. Research has identified four key factors that influence our subjective interpretation of a stress: the novelty and the unpredictability of the event, how threatening it is (to the body or the ego), and how much control we have over it.
The concept of perceived stress has some critical implications. The most important of these is the notion that we can reduce the severity of our physiological response to a stressor by simply changing the way we think about it. In the field of psychology, this is known as reframing. Reframaing gives us a measure of control over how we respond to life’s stressful events. In fact, anything we can do to improve our sense of control will have a profound and positive effect on our physical and mental well-being.
Key Point:On a physiological level, it’s possible to improve your stress resilience by strengthening your vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is one of the most important, yet least familiar, parts of the autonomic central nervous system. The Latin word vagus means wandering, which is the perfect name for this long, meandering bundle of sensory and motor neurons that extend from the brainstem down to the neck, chest, and abdomen. As the largest nerve in the body, it connects the brainstem to all the body’s major organs including the ears, eyes, tongue, kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs, stomach, and colon. It also plays a key role in mitigating the harmful effects of stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous response.
Men and women with impaired vagal activity often suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. A vagal nerve imbalance can also affect the physical body, causing irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, nausea, weight gain, and chronic inflammation.
Key Point:Those with healthy vagal tone are characteristically resilient under stress.
They can relax more quickly after a stressful event due to the strength of their parasympathetic nervous response. As a result, they also typically enjoy healthy digestion, a strong metabolism, and good overall mental and physical health.
Because life is hectic and demanding, however, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is activated with greater frequency than the parasympathetic (rest and digest). So, it often dominates our reflexive stress response. It is possible, however, to stimulate the vagus nerve, restoring and improving its function along with the body’s ability to mitigate the harmful effects of stress.
Here’s a list of twelve different vagus nerve strengthening strategies to consider:
Mindful breathing is one of the most powerful ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. While the use of breathing techniques is a relatively new concept in the West, Eastern medicine has been incorporating them for millennia. It is now widely accepted that breath work can play a foundational role in supporting the body’s ability to achieve and maintain physiological balance.
We all have experienced the benefits of taking several deep breaths to help us calm down before an event or during a period of emotional distress. Deep breathing essentially kick starts the body’s parasympathetic response by activating the vagus nerve. It turns out that the benefits of deep breathing are even greater when practiced on a regular basis.
Mindful breathing doesn’t require any extra time or effort, but it does demand some focused attention to do it correctly. It’s important to breathe in fully, allowing your belly to relax and expand. When breathing out, the opposite should happen--the belly should contract inward, pushing the last remnants of air out of the lungs. The more your belly expands and contracts, the deeper your breathing will become. Taking five or six deep breaths a minute is a very achievable goal for most people.
Yoga has been shown to improve both vagal nerve tone and parasympathetic system activity, especially when combined with mindful breathing. Research indicates that women who do yoga regularly experience less anxiety and have a more positive outlook on life. In addition to increasing vagal stimulation, the practice of yoga has been shown to raise levels of Gamma Amino Butyric Acid or GABA, the body’s stress-reduction hormone.
The vagus nerve is constantly sending information about the status of the body’s internal organs directly to the brain. We now know that the health of our intestinal microbiome can have a profound effect on how well the vagus nerve does its job. Eating a health-enhancing, whole-food diet that includes fermented foods will support the health of the microbiome and improve the vagus nerve’s ability to communicate more clearly. Avoiding the unnecessary use of antibiotics and limiting both sugar and alcohol intake will also be helpful.
We all know that physical activity is good for the mind and body, but when it comes to stimulating the vagus nerve, it’s important to make sure that the amount and intensity of exercise doesn’t exceed a ‘tonic’ level.
While competitive athletes are occasionally required to push the boundaries of the body’s physical limits, pursuing a form of physical activity that can be enjoyed and done at a level of exertion that feels comfortable will do more to improve the health of the vagus nerve. Finding a balance between goal-oriented workouts and joyful movement can make the mind and body stronger and more stress resistant.
Neck, foot, and pressure massage can stimulate the vagus nerve, supporting both healthy digestion and blood pressure. Massage is often used to help underweight infants gain weight because it stimulates the vagus nerve.
Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight-or-flight (sympathetic) system switches off and your rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system switches on. So short-term cold exposure will increase vagal nerve activation. One of the simplest ways to begin exposing your body to cold is to splash cold water on your face. Submerging your face in cold water for short periods of time would be a next step. Those who are motivated can graduate to taking a brief, cold shower.
Singing or Listening to Music
Humming, chanting, and singing all activate the vagus nerve. And listening to music can get the job done, too. We enjoy music because it stirs our emotions and leaves us with a heightened sense of well-being. These positive feelings are inextricably linked to vagal nerve activity.
As the saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.” In fact, numerous studies have proven that it’s possible to laugh your way to better health. So, it’s not surprising that laughter stimulates and strengthens the vagus nerve. In addition, it supports good cognitive function, protects against heart disease, encourages the release of feel-good endorphins, and the production of nitric oxide which improves oxygen delivery.
Prayer and Meditation
Prayer and meditation have both been shown to increases vagal tone. Prayer slows and deepens the breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve and strengthens cardiovascular health. One study showed that reciting the rosary (a Catholic prayer practice) increases vagal activation and improves diastolic blood pressure.
Studies have shown that meditation can also improve the function of the vagus nerve, although it seems to be more effective when the process includes compassionate thoughts. Repeating phrases like “May you feel safe,” or “May you be happy” amplify the positive emotional effects of meditating which appear to be correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others. Combining meditation with social connection improves vagal tone, increasing our sense of joy, serenity, and compassion.
Most people find giving to others an inherently enjoyable practice. It turns out that there’s a physiological reason why. Giving our time, attention, or resources to another stimulates vagal nerve activity. Researchers believe that a branch of our nervous system evolved to reinforce our giving behavior with positive physical and psychological benefits as it likely played a role in guaranteeing the survival of our species.
Sleeping or Lying on Your Right Side
Studies have found that sleeping or lying on the right side encourages the highest level of vagal activation; lying on the back, the lowest.
The vagus nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle.
Gargling contracts these muscles, which activates the vagus nerve and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract. Before you swallow water, give it an occasional gargle first.
About the author
Jackie Cruickshank Cohen is an NBHWC Board Certified Health and WellnessCoach, True Cellular Detox Certified Practitioner, author, and elite master’s athlete.