In these times of uncertainty, it’s so important to cultivate tools to manage our stress levels, to pay attention to our vagal tone, and do what we can to stimulate the vagus nerve.
OK – Many of you may be thinking: “Wait, what?”
I admit – I had never heard of the vagus nerve until a couple of years ago. In fact, the first time I heard someone mention vagal tone, I thought they might have been referring to Kegel movements. But the vagus is the longest and most complex, arguably the most important nerve in the body, traveling from your brainstem, winding down throughout your body, to finish in your abdomen. On the way, it connects with many major organs, including the heart and lungs. It has a part in regulating mood, digestion, heart rate and respiration.
The vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that triggers our “rest and digest” as opposed to our “fight or flight” response. Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. How does the vagus work? In a sense, it reverses the flow of information in our bodies — instead of orders flowing from your brain to your body, the vagus is taking suggestions from the body and feeding it back to the brain. When you consciously relax your body, the vagus tells your brain it’s okay to rest.
So how do we stimulate higher activity in the vagus nerve? Not surprisingly, many of the tools sound just like a page out of a self-care manual.
- Deep and Slow Breathing – Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute will help to relieve stress. If you’re finding it hard to slow down your breath, try any of the basic yoga pranayama techniques, like 3-part breathing or alternative nostril breathing. I personally find when I have to place more focus on where my breath is moving to and from, I’m more able to control the depth and rate of my breathing.
- Singing, Humming or Chanting – The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and even gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. So next time, think twice before you forgo chanting Om along with your yoga teacher in the Zoom room. Join an online Kirtan for something different, or just sing out your favorite song.
- Exercise – Many brain experts recommend exercise as the most important activity for optimal brain health. It’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. With our current confinement, it can be hard to get in enough movement throughout the day. Pick an at-home activity that you enjoy – online yoga or fitness classes, a Peloton ride, or just get up and dance to your favorite playlist.
- Massage – I think we can all agree a great massage is a major stress reliever. While we won’t have access to the spa in the immediate future, there are several at-home options to choose from. Give yourself a foot massage or a neck massage or use foam rollers or Yoga Tune Up balls or tennis balls to apply targeted pressure to those tight spots in your body.
- Socializing and Laughing – We can’t visit our friends in real life, but we can check in on them remotely, call them, post and tag each other on Social Media, if that’s your thing, or have a Zoom party. Keep it light, if you can. We’ve all done enough crying!
- Exposure to Cold – Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. I happen to have a special fondness for this one. Those who know me know that I would much prefer “cold yoga” to hot yoga. I have a lower than normal body temperature and am deeply averse to intense heat. Now, I’m not suggesting you take an ice bath, but maybe splash some cold water on your face after you finish your regular hand washing routine. (Just don’t touch your face with your hands.)
- Meditation – Focusing on the here and now not only redirects your mind away from the chatter that can create stress, it also stimulates the pathways of the vagus allowing it to send signals back to the brain to relax. I know meditation is difficult for many (me, included), if it’s not practiced regularly. But it gets easier the more you do it. A simple way to start is to just hone in on your breath and count each inhale and exhale for at least 20 counts. Or take one of the many free meditation classes offered online by yoga studios and teachers. There are also free apps for meditating at your leisure – Insight Timer is a great one.
I hope some of these suggestions will help you to relax just a little more. I know how much I relish my rest these days. With that, I’ll close with some bad puns – what happens in the vagus, doesn’t stay in the vagus; it travels throughout the whole body to offer you rest – so, Viva the Vagus!
May Louie first took yoga in college to fulfill a Phys-Ed requirement and immediately fell in love. She, unfortunately, did not continue with her practice but reconnected with it when she retired from her corporate job in 2002 and has since become a serious yoga enthusiast. After her second retirement in 2017, she completed her 200-hour RYT certification, studying with Dina Crosta, Ellen Mosko, and Jamie Segal Hanley, with a focus on alignment based flow.
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