Harness the power of your own body to reduce stress and anxiety
When we’re feeling stressed and anxious, it’s usually because of our oversensitive brains. Hard-wired to look out for danger and sound the alarm when it perceives danger (whether it’s a hungry tiger walking your way or an ambiguous email from your boss), our brain triggers chronic stress and anxiety when we stay in a fight or flight state.
Moving out of this state isn’t always easy, but the body has a secret weapon we can take advantage of - the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve is the longest nerve in our body, connecting our brain with many organs (vagus means ‘wanderer’ in Latin, which fits as the nerve wanders around our body).
The vagus nerve does many things, but the one we’re interested in here is the way it triggers a relaxation response in the body and increases something called vagal tone.
Counsellor Fiona Austin explains in her article, ‘The vagus nerve – our biological antidote to anxiety and stress’: “Since the vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, when it gets stimulated it increases what is known as vagal tone; slowing our heart rate and our breathing and calming our nervous system down. In 2010, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found a positive correlation between a high vagal tone and positive emotions and overall good health.”
And the best part? We can stimulate our vagus nerve and help ourselves move out of a stressed and anxious state. Here’s how.
1. Breathe deep
Breathing exercises are often recommended when it comes to stress and anxiety, and here’s another great reason to give it a try. When we breathe deep and slow from our abdomen, we stimulate the vagus nerve. Try breathing out for longer than you breathe in as this helps to activate our parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response).
Loving kindness meditations especially are thought to stimulate the vagus nerve, helping you to feel more relaxed and connected. Try this guided meditation by our very own Hannah:
2. Sing it out
The vagus nerve runs up our necks, so when we engage our vocal cords we can give it a gentle nudge. Singing can do this and improve our overall wellbeing, so why not make a playlist of your favourite sing-along songs?
Not a singer? Try humming or gargling water instead.
Massaging any part of the body is great for rest and relaxation, but it’s thought that massaging the feet in particular can help stimulate the vagus nerve. Try self-massage, ask a partner or treat yourself to a reflexology session and see how you feel. You can also gently massage your neck, shoulders and behind your ears for more direct contact with the vagus nerve.
4. Cold water immersion
Exposing yourself to the cold may not sound relaxing, but as well as triggering our relaxation response, it’s thought to reduce inflammation in the body. Try putting your face in some cold water or, if you’re feeling brave, having a cold shower. You might want to start with short exposures and build up, if you find it helpful.
Most of us know that exercise prompts our body to release ‘feel good’ hormones, but it turns out it also stimulates the vagus nerve. The trick here is to find a movement you enjoy so that it feels fun, and not a chore. Experiment with different exercises and see what feels good to you, we’re big advocates for dancing around your living room to your favourite songs for the ultimate mood boost.
6. Listen to ASMR
Do you ever get those ‘brain tingles’ when you hear certain sounds? This is ASMR and it can bring about a pleasant sense of calm and relaxation.
“Our brains are wired to activate our survival instincts through certain sounds like loud voices, crashing, and bangs. Perhaps ASMR facilitates the opposite, by calming the nervous system.” Says psychotherapist Nicola Vanlint.
Check out ASMR videos on YouTube and see how they make you feel. Not for you? Try listening to any relaxing music that encourages a sense of calm.
7. Connect with others
Isolation can exacerbate stress as we feel alone in our struggles. Connecting with others and feeling a sense of belonging is a fantastic way to gain perspective and calm our nervous system down. Call a friend, arrange a meet-up with family or reach out to colleagues to reignite that sense of connection.
As well as stimulating the vagus nerve, laughter can help lower blood pressure and improve mood. Embrace your silly side, find joy in the little things and laugh with loved ones often to experience the brilliant benefits.
These tools are great to incorporate into your life, helping you ‘hack’ your body and reduce stress and anxiety. However, some of us may need a helping hand to uproot the cause of our stress and anxiety.