The body is governed by communication between neurons that are found throughout it. These nerves are the reason you bring your hand back after touching a hot object, sneeze when your nose is tickled, jump when you encounter a fright, and many more scenarios too numerous to list. Out of the 12 cranial nerves that innervate your brain and rest of body, there is one in particular that holds power to shift your mood, mindset, and stress level.
Number 10. The Big 10. X--The Vagus Nerve.
The vagus nerve is intertwined with a laundry list of body functions that if reviewed in detail, would make this article much longer than you probably want to read right now. So, we will stick to what you really want to know: how can knowing about and tapping into my vagus nerve help me? First we will do a brief introduction to the vagus nerve and its workings, then you’ll read about how to recruit the vagus nerve to your benefit.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is a highway—nay, an Interstate—of information that helps your body regulate. It is the longest cranial nerve of the twelve, and it innervates most of the GI system, diaphragm, lungs, and heart, just to name a few. The role of the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, however, is what truly makes this nerve precious to its beholder.
The parasympathetic nervous system is what controls your ability to “rest and digest”. In this state, your body conserves energy so it can be properly utilized when the need arises. Another nervous system, the sympathetic, is in control of your “fight or flight” reflexes and finds use for that energy the parasympathetic stores. Needless to say, the sympathetic nervous system is crucial to survival and helping you stay alive and productive! However, issues arise when the sympathetic system stays active for too long and the parasympathetic system is left dormant, consequently having minimum stores of energy available for your body.
Stimulating Your Vagus Nerve
To put it simply: too much sympathetic nervous activation leads to chronic stress, anxiety, and burn out. When your tank is constantly feeling like it is on ‘E’ there’s a good chance you are spending too much time in the sympathetic state. Time is usually one of the issues in this, though. While a week or two away in a parasympathetic paradise for some quality R&R is certainly one way to give yourself a reset, there are ways to give your body and mind the gift of rest, or at least recalibration, throughout the day by tapping into that oh-so-amazing vagus nerve.
Experiment with this: place one hand right above your navel, and the other right in the center of your chest. Begin to take slow deep breaths. Focus your breathing deeper than usual, and intend to have your breath fill your abdomen, behind your navel. Though it takes practice, if done correctly, you’ll notice the hand above your navel moving with each breath while the hand on your sternum hardly moves at all. Focus as much as you can on your breath alone. This is called diaphragmatic breathing.
Since the vagus nerve innervates the diaphragm, breathing in this way can stimulate the nerve to signal the parasympathetic nervous system to activate. You may notice a decrease in heart rate and, less noticeably, blood pressure, two things that tend to spike when stress or worry occurs. As you get more efficient at this type of breathing, you will be able to employ it in times of stress to help find a more stable sense of calm.
There are other techniques you can use to activate your vagus nerve specifically, or help reduce worry, stress, and anxiety in general. If you’d like more information on ways to combat stress and retrain your mind and body to give your parasympathetic nervous system a fighting chance, contact ETCG today. We have counselors that would be happy to talk with you about the symptoms of stress you are feeling and help you navigate different ways you might find relief!