The vagus nerve is the cranial nerve X (CNX) ortenth cranial nerve. It's also known as the wandering nerve, as it's the longest parasympathetic nerve in the body.
This nerve has been compared to the conductor of an orchestra, as it takes the lead in almost every autonomic function in the body. Research has confirmed that the vagus nerve is key to wellness, as it stimulates the 'rest and digest' side of the nervous system, as opposed to the sympathetic 'fight or flight' side.
The number one gatekeeper to stress is the vagus nerve. The nerve relays stress signals to and from the brain. By increasing the tone and activity of this nerve, you can learn to shift out of anxiety and stress and move into calm, peace, and relaxation.
How to Manage Stress via the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is responsible for regulating the heart, respiration, organ function, and much more. What’s even more important is that the nerve serves a crucial role in regulating the nervous system.
By regulating the nervous system, it automatically shuts down stress responses. Here are six ways to manage stress via the vagus nerve:
1) Relax Muscles
It's very common to see anxious people express tightness around their eyes and a forward head posture with rigid neck muscles.
Clenched fists are another common symptom. If these symptoms are chronic and habitual, we tend to not notice them. Stretching is a great way to discharge stress from the nervous system by sending signals of safety to the brain through the proprioceptive system.
2) Stretch Out
Ever felt less stressed after a quick run? One way to activate your vagus nerve to relieve stress is by stretch your muscles.
Try this simple exercise: sit in a comfortable position either on the floor or on a chair, if that's better for you. Simply bring your right hand to the top of the head, and tip the right ear towards the right shoulder.
You're going to be side-bent to the right. Shift your eyes only, with your head in the same position, and eyes going up and towards the left. Move them towards the left side of your vision. Hold the pose for 30 seconds. Return to the vertical position, and do that on the other side as well. Notice your breath and emotions after doing this exercise.
3) Managing Gut
However, before determining which probiotics to take, you should check with your doctor. While research shows that probiotics enhance the vagal tone, they may or may not work for you, depending on your biology.
4) Do Exercise
Most medical professionals recommend exercise help improve mental health. Research has shown that exercise can enhance the growth hormone (GH) in the brain and activate the vagus nerve.
Sprinting twice a week, weight lifting twice or four times a week, and brisk walking for 30-60 minutes each day are all known to activate the vagus nerve. Another way is to select a sport, and devote yourself to it.
Choose your physical activity depending on your mood and level of fitness. The idea is to remain moderately active while listening to your body's needs.
5) Compassionate Attention
One of the most crucial ways to activate the ventral vagal network is through social connection, whether with others or by paying 'compassionate attention' to yourself.
A meaningful conversation can be had with someone you're at home with or over FaceTime with a loved one. Making eye contact with someone, even during a Zoom conference, can help your body relax by creating a sense of safety and connection.
You can picture a trusted person, and imagine feelings of safety and connection if there're no one to mingle with or if internet interactions are not working for you.
If you're a busy person and not finding time to do any of the above, breathing can be your go-to technique to exercise the vagus nerve.
One effective technique for self-regulation is mindful breathing, which involves paying close attention to your breath. As the vagus nerve runs through the vocal cords, deep breathing directly stimulates the ventral vagal system.
Diaphragmatic breathing with awareness has been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol. In a 2017 study, subjects who participated in a guided breathing programme had decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels in their saliva shortly after the exercise.
Taking charge of your vagus nerve can significantly help reduce stress and other physiological symptoms of mental health concerns. The aforementioned easy tools can be used anywhere and at any time. The key to relaxing is to harbor your internal resources and control your body.
Janvi Kapur is a counselor with a Master's degree in applied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology.
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