During periods of acute stress, our bodies go into fight or flight mode. The good news is that our bodies possess the ability to control this reaction. Known as the vagus nerve system, the fight-or-flight response in our bodies can be balanced by the vagus nerve and it can also cause a relaxation response. It is a cranial nerve that links the brain to the body. Without the vagus nerve, our bodies wouldn't be able to perform even the most fundamental activities. Stimulating the vagus nerve can have significant positive effects on our health.
However, prolonged stress might cause our vagus nerve to lose its capacity to transition back to its parasympathetic mode. When you have vagal dysfunction, you are more likely to be at risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, and anxiety.
How Stress Impacts the Vagus Nerve?
Chronic stress can harm the vagus nerve. This may result in issues like anxiety and depression. The body may also become more vulnerable to illnesses and infections as a result.
Both stress and anxiety can trigger the vagus nerve. Since anxiety can exacerbate the symptoms of stress and stress can create anxiety, the two are frequently related. Numerous symptoms can result from an overactive vagus nerve. Health problems can include abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, or fainting.
When we experience a traumatic event; our vagus nerve is impacted; as it is involved in our recovery from stress. Trauma (that can cause severe stress) can dysregulate the rhythmic balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. When we do not express, process or release our emotional pain, it can become trapped, leading to stress and inflammation; creating havoc within our immune system. Unresolved trauma can become embedded within the nervous system and affect the vagus nerve.
5 Ways to Stimulate Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health
Increasing your vagal tone activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down. Here are five methods for stimulating your vagus nerve and gaining control of your mental health:
1) Belly breathing
One of the most important techniques for encouraging the vagus nerve's healthy functioning is to breathe deeply and slowly from the abdomen. You can learn how to employ breathing techniques to divert your attention from tension or discomfort. A single thought is processed at a time by the human brain. When you concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing, you are not concentrating on the stressor.
Most of us have a tendency to stop breathing and hold our breath when we anticipate stress in any form. Holding one's breath triggers a fight/flight/freeze reaction and aggravates feelings of discomfort, stiffness, anxiety, or fear.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicinal procedure in which small needles are inserted into particular spots in the body. Numerous illnesses, such as pain, anxiety, and migraines, have been demonstrated to respond well to acupuncture treatment. By lowering inflammation and promoting blood flow, it may also aid in the vagus nerve's recovery.
3) Improve gut function
Research on the gut-brain link is well-established. This implies that your mental health may be affected if your gut is not in good shape. To stimulate the vagus nerve, eat a lot of nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and good fats which will help repair the gut as well. If you wish to improve your gut health, you might also want to think about taking probiotic supplements or other similar measures.
4) Cold therapy
Have you ever taken a cold shower? Cold exposure, made popular by Wim Hof and his combination of cold showers and breathing exercises, has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, activate the vagus nerve, and support healthy mitochondria (the "engines" inside each of our cells).
If taking a full-on cold shower is not an option, try splashing cold water on your face, which has similar benefits, especially when you are experiencing a wave of stress or anxiety.
According to a recent study, exercising and moving your body can have an impact on your vagus nerve. You can improve your heart rate variability and vagus nerve activity by engaging in interval and endurance training.
Exercise reduces sympathetic nervous activity and regulates the parasympathetic response to help you maintain a healthy balance between your respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Stressful situations don't always have to be bad for our bodies and minds. We can activate our vagus nerve to tell our body that it's time to unwind and decompress, which has a long-term positive impact on our mood, ability to handle pain, well-being, and resilience.
Janvi Kapur is a counselor with a Master's degree in applied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology.
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