Our autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions such as our heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure. It is made up of two components: the sympathetic nervous system + the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is how our bodies respond to stress: fight, flight, or freeze.This mechanism was created as a way to keep us protected in the face of danger. In our modern world, we don’t come face-to-face with life-threatening situations often, but our bodies don’t know the difference between what is life-threatening or simply ego-threatening. Whether we are stressed at work, have drama in our social lives, or are simply overstimulated, this defense mechanism can be activated. When we experience elongated stress, it manifests in the body as high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and brain alterations which can lead to depression, anxiety, and addiction.
The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body after the danger has passed: rest + digest.It is deeply impacted by your vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in your body. It influences your breathing, digestion, immune response, heart rate, and overall mental health. The amazing news is, you can actually tone this nerve, which allows you to remain calm and at ease in the face of stress.
A simple way to incorporate this practice is to end your shower with cold water. You can start with just thirty seconds of cold, work up to a few minutes, and maybe even have your entire shower be cold! If you want to take it a step further, explore the Wim Hof Method to really dive into this!
Deep, slow breathing helps stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and relax your body. One of the simplest methods is abdominal breathing. As you inhale, focus on your breath filling up your lungs starting from your abdomen and moving up through your chest, as you exhale practice expelling from your chest and working your way to your abdomen.
The best way to do this is through chanting, singing, humming, or gargling. Your vagus nerve is attached to your throat, and you stimulate it by using your vocal cords. Practice saying a mantra out loud, go to kirtan, chant at home, sing in the shower or in your car - use any opportunity you can!
Bringing stillness to your mind through practices like pratyahara, pranayama, or sitting in meditation helps reset the body and mind. Even just five minutes a day make a big impact! Here are a few super simple meditation practices: 4-4-4-4 breath (breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds - repeat for a few rounds!), repeat a mantra or affirmation (I am calm and at ease), or go for a reflective walk.
Specifically, probiotics + omega 3 fatty acids have been proven to increase your vagal tone. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchee, sauerkraut, and kombucha are all filled with probiotics. Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in foods like fish + seafood (especially salmon!), as well as nuts and seeds. Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum are the two probiotics you can incorporate. This has to do with the gut-brain connection; when the gut is healthy and happy, so is the mind.
Try to move your body daily, even a thirty-minute walk is enough to stimulate your vagus nerve. Consistency is key though, so choose whatever form of exercise you actually enjoy doing!
Touch is so important! It can be incorporated by scheduling massages monthly (or however often you want!), asking a friend for a hand massage, or by practicing self-massage (we highly recommend incorporating abhyanga daily!). Foot massage or reflexology specifically can help stimulate the vagus nerve.
It’s a bonus that socializing and laughing are proven to stimulate the vagus nerve - they actually are said to influence each other, so the more toned your vagus nerve is the more you experience laughter, and the more you experience laughter the more toned your vagus nerve becomes! Sounds like a win-win to me!😉
Being in nature is instantly grounding. It allows us to take a step back from the drama of our lives and simply be present. By connecting with the vastness of the world around us, our daily stressors suddenly seem less important. Spend time in nature as often as possible - eat outside, exercise outside, meditate outside… get out there!
Next time you find yourself facing a stressful situation, reach for any of these tools to help bring you back to center. From singing, to laughing, to chatting with a friend, to simply breathing - you can choose what is best suited for the moment. It is important to incorporate these practices into your daily lives in order to strengthen your vagus nerve and your connection with Self.
Awareness is key. You have these methods to help you remain calm and at ease, but I invite you to take it a step further! Notice what creates stress in your life. Is there a certain person you constantly feel depleted around (we have a whole blog on emotional boundaries here)? Is your job too demanding? Do you spread yourself too thin? How is your self-talk? Do you incorporate enough moments of stillness? Are you constantly surrounded by technology?
There are so many factors that may contribute to your stress, start with small shifts and work your way up. Your health and happiness is the most important thing in this life - protect it!