It’s early morning and a car cuts you off on your way to work. You swerve to avoid a potential crash and feel your blood boiling! You are contemplating going after them but decide that’s a bad idea. At your morning work meeting, you realize you are not fully prepared for your presentation. You feel incredibly anxious and defeated and believe there is nothing you can do about it.
But there is something you can do. It can be as simple as deep breathing, tapping into the vagus nerve to alleviate anxiety and stress.
Stressed on the way to work and feeling anxious throughout the day is common for many people. Without thinking about it, you have activated your sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. Stress is inevitable but how we react to it varies from person to person. Once your sympathetic nervous system is activated, it’s critical to your overall health to get your body back in homeostasis, a state of balance
True story: Many years ago, when I was much younger a friend told me that she felt being in a ‘slight’ stressed state probably meant she was burning more calories. Obviously, this is not the case! I’m happy that I know how to calm my body and mind down and am not contributing to creating disease!
When stressed or anxious, your body and mind are receiving cues that you must fight to survive. Wherever you are, there are ways you can activate the vagus nerve to bring your body back to a state of calm. Where you can get focused, control your mood, ultimately get a good night’s sleep and help prevent disease from starting.
Let’s Get to Know Our Vagus Nerve
Since vagus means ‘wandering’, it should come as no surprise that this network extends from the brainstem through the body — including the neck, heart, stomach and skin. The vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system. It is the ‘rest and digest’ system that works in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, the ‘fight or flight’ system activated when you are stressed or anxious. The vagus nerve’s main role is to control automatic functions such as breathing, digesting and heart rate. Getting the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems back in balance helps heal symptoms of nervous system dysfunction.
If the body is harmed in some way, for example with a cut from a knife or a broken bone, an inflammatory response kicks in to protect the body. Your body does the same thing when you are stressed or anxious causing unnecessary inflammation and activation of the immune system. An example of this is how repeated acute stress or chronic stress may contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, namely the coronary arteries – linking stress to one cause of heart attacks. Unmanaged stress can contribute to heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Stress is quite prominent in our society, but it is critical for you to find ways to relieve stress and relax. Check out my blog on habit change starting with awareness for additional support.
Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
You can’t control the annoying drivers or stressful situations that show up each day, but you can control how you respond to them. It’s important to remember that you are negatively impacting your health if you are constantly reacting to life with heightened stress and anxiety. Let’s pull the imaginary lever to send a message to your body that you are not in danger by stimulating the vagus nerve. These exercises work by focusing attention on the body rather than the racing mind. They will slow your heart rate and breathing as well as relax your muscles.
- Splash cool water on your face and neck
- Deep breathe in and exhale your breath slowly as if fogging a mirror
- Get outdoors and connect with nature
- Do some humming or gargling
- Practice meditation, tai chi, or yoga
We can all feel stressed and anxious from time to time but regulating your nervous system is within your control. Stimulating your vagus nerve can create a positive feedback loop: the condition of your body supports mental clarity which reinforces that you are safe. A feeling we all want to achieve.
Hormone changes are inevitable, being stressed is not ok. Reach out to me to learn more about how I can help you!
I’m a registered nurse for over 24 years with a Masters Degree in Nursing (Education). I am also a Certified Women’s Health Coach specializing in helping women navigate changing hormones in their 30s and beyond after my own difficult experience through menopause. I believe women should truly thrive in midlife and not just survive!