Anxiety is an overwhelming experience for anyone who has walked down the road of unwelcome and unwarranted stress. While it can be suffocating and overwhelming, it is often an invitation to go inward and listen to the inner voice that is calling you home. And we may not realize it, but understanding something called the vagus nerve is a great place to start and feel equipped in times of stress.
Sometimes anxiety is the result of burnout, toxic situations or people, or generally the body’s way of letting the soul know that something has to change. Other times, we can’t quite pinpoint our cause of stress and misfiring of the autonomic nervous system so easily. Reordering our life to be more calm and balanced may be the call we didn’t know we needed. While we do this and lean in to understand our anxiety and get to the root of it, it can also be helpful to understand quick coping tools as we do the hard work.
The Vagus Nerve-Connecting Mind and Body
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, running from the cranium to the colon. It represents the main part of the parasympathetic nervous system and oversees mood, digestion, immune response, and heart rate. This highlights two huge pieces of information for us! The parasympathetic nervous system is the body’s state of rest, also known as the rest and digest. This is the opposite of what we commonly know as the fight or flight response, or the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is where we want to be and what we want to know when we are experiencing anxiety because it is the antithesis of it. This means that the vagus nerve interacts with your state of calm, and you have the ability to access it. Feel free to let that sink in.
The next point is that the vagus nerve oversees your digestion, as it runs directly from your brain function to your colon function. In an effort to empower you, I want to highlight the fact that when you eat, your vagus nerve is sending messages to your brain, and your brain is sending them right back. Therefore, what you eat matters in regard to your mental and emotional health. This reality is known as the gut-brain axis, or the mind-body connection.
The polyvagal theory, or the neuroscience pertaining to the connection between the vagus nerve and emotional and stress regulation, helps us understand and unlock extreme anxiety symptoms, like those that flood as a result of PTSD.
Now that we understand just how beautifully intricate the brain is, let’s dive into how we can empower ourselves in stimulating the vagus nerve.
How the Vagus Nerve Can Calm Our Anxieties
When you have a bout of worry about work, money, family, or feel in a state of stress, there is so much physiological work happening in your body to meet your needs. Stimulating the vagus nerve is one way to reach a state of calm in a tangible and immediate way.
Sing, Chant, or Hum
Singing or chanting is not only a way to let out some steam and energy, but your vocal cords can stimulate your vagus nerve with vibration, improving what is known as your vagal tone.
Gargling water is a way to stimulate your vagus nerve in a similar way. Swig some water, lean back, and let those natural vocal vibrations do the work.
Cold Water To Your Face
Applying cold water to your face in any capacity is a quick way to naturally stimulate your vagus nerve. It also activates the diving reflex. The diving reflex is our body’s response to cold by shutting down parts of the body in order to conserve energy. This slows down our heart rate and relaxes us. If you aren’t swimming in the frigid waters of the North sea, you can just as easily take a bag of ice and apply it to your face or splash cold water on your face.
Deep Belly Breathing
Deep diaphragmatic belly breaths allow us to stimulate the vagus nerve. This is one of the quickest ways to bring our bodies back into a state of calm. Lay on the floor against a bed, chair, or ottoman and elevate your legs so that your calves are parallel to the ground. Take slow and deep breaths so that you see your belly rise before your chest does. Lay there and connect to your breath. You will experience your body physiologically returning back to homeostasis. Magic!
Taking care of your gut health and microbiome (microbiota lining your digestive tract) is key to sending good messages up to your brain for your cognitive functioning and mental/emotional health. Consider healthy probiotics to cheer on your gut health!
The vagus nerve reminds us that it is a two way street from our minds to our guts, and from our guts to our minds. In that, we can rest assured that an imbalance in our mental, emotional, and physical health isn’t necessarily out of our hands. Consider an imbalance as an offer to tend to what may not be working, with an open heart for what could instead.