It’s safe to assume that we are all familiar with the sensations of stress. In prolonged periods of stress, our mental and physical health is at risk of facing negative implications. So, how can we catch and reverse that fight or flight response before it becomes too much?
Let’s find out.
When someone is feeling stressed, the body produces specific stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, which trigger the fight or flight response within the central nervous system. Though this response is beneficial in situations where you must respond quickly, excessive and prolonged stress can have a number of negative consequences. If stress hormone levels remain high for an extended period of time, the body may experience a weakened immune system, chronic pain, increased mental health challenges, high blood pressure, and insomnia.
There are several ways to manage stress, but did you know that there is a nerve in your body that when stimulated, can reduce your body’s prolonged stress response?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, linking the brain to the cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive and systems, and many other vital organs.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, the body can shift from a state of fight or flight to its natural resting state. This can help to reset blood pressure, immune function, and produce enzymes to improve the body’s overall well-being. The vagal tone measures the strength, speed, and efficiency of your vagus nerve's ability to respond. By stimulating the vagus nerve consistently, you can improve its tone, resulting in effective management of stress. Voila!
Here are three easy at-home ways to improve your vagus nerve function:
1) Humming, singing, and gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and muscles at the back of your throat. This means that it can be stimulated through auditory vibrations, like humming, singing, and gargling. When doing these activities, focus on the vibrations created throughout your body. When you sing, you also slow your breath and extend exhalation, which leads us to the next way to strengthen your vagal tone, breathing.
2) Deep breathing and meditation
When stressed or anxious, we typically respond automatically by producing a rapid or held breath. By practicing deep and slow breathing that extends deep into the belly and ribs, we can activate the vagus nerve and regulate our heart rate, resulting in a calmer, more relaxed state.
If you are new to meditating or practicing purposeful breathwork, you can follow guided exercises on YouTube:
3) Cold temperatures
Studies have shown that short exposures to cold temperatures can activate the vagus nerve. When exposed on a regular basis, this can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. Brr!
Try it at home! Start with your face: Submerging your face into ice-cold water for a few seconds, or holding a cold compress to cover your face, can stimulate the vagus nerve and the ‘dive reflex. This reflex slows your heart rate to conserve energy and oxygen. This can rapidly decrease anxiety, stimulate your intestines, and boost your immune system.