As we venture into the holiday season, it can be easy to get carried away with all the hustle and bustle and lose touch with our own needs in the process. Before the added stress of the holidays gets in the way of your celebrating, take a proactive approach against it by harnessing the power of the vagus nerve to promote relaxation and strengthen overall resilience.
Understanding the Vagus Nerve: A Key to Daily Stress Reduction
While we can’t always eliminate daily or seasonal stress from our lives, we can learn new ways to manage it. The vagus nerve provides us with the key to unlock and release tension we may otherwise hold onto in our body and mind.
This long and winding nerve is a pathway of communication between the brain and much of the rest of the body. By learning how to use it to communicate messages of relaxation and calm, we can tap into the science and magic of our body and give ourselves the gift of not only relaxation but joy and pleasure as well.
What makes the vagus nerve so special?
♦ It communicates with vital organs: As the longest cranial nerve, it runs through many of our internal organs, including the heart, stomach, lungs, liver, pancreas, intestines, kidneys, spleen, and gallbladder.
♦ It promotes relaxation: As a foundational aspect of the parasympathetic nervous system, or PSNS, the vagus nerve controls our ability to relax and is responsible for promoting calm feelings throughout the body.
♦ It regulates digestion and supports the microbiome: The vagus nerve controls how quickly food moves through the digestive tract, promotes the release of digestive fluids, keeps the intestinal walls healthy, and affects the diversity of healthy gut microbes.
♦ It supports immune health: The vagus nerve directly activates immune system functions via signaling to areas of the body that have concentrated immune activity, such as the spleen and gut microbiome.
♦ It helps you connect with others emotionally: The vagus nerve has a direct impact on our feelings of empathy and has a lot to do with how we display emotions on our faces. It can also affect our ability to connect emotionally with others through the release of oxytocin, which is known as the “love hormone” and is a chemical messenger that promotes social bonding.
♦ It protects memory and brain health: Activation of the vagus nerve promotes the release of neurotransmitters that are involved in thinking, attention, and memory. This helps to support neuroplasticity and can have protective effects on the brain.
♦ It supports mental and emotional health: By helping to calm our thoughts and increasing our resilience to everyday stress, the vagus nerve can help to keep our moods and emotions in balance. When activated, it can shift us out of a state of apprehension and have uplifting effects.
♦ It helps you get a good night’s sleep: The vagus nerve helps to regulate the circadian rhythm, and vagal stimulation can promote the release of neurotransmitters, such as GABA, that support quality sleep.
How the Vagus Nerve Impacts Daily Stress Levels
If you have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ or the sympathetic response, you know that when our body or mind perceives a threat our adrenals kick into high gear and ramp up activating processes throughout the body.
Activating the vagus nerve can help us invoke the opposite response, known as the ‘rest and digest’ state, where our body shifts into relaxation mode. Triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) most often happens unconsciously, but there are plenty of ways to activate it. We can make it a conscious part of our day and learn to infuse it into our lives for ongoing stress management and overall health benefits.
Letting the Vagus Nerve Take Control
In our modern society, hustle culture is rewarded, and busyness is considered the status quo. Relaxation isn’t something we are taught. Sometimes it takes a little work to train the body to shift out of a state of tension and hurry into a slower, more connected way of living in the world. Make these techniques a part of your daily routine to experience the state of peaceful bliss that the vagus nerve can invoke.
Techniques for Stimulating the Vagus Nerve to Promote Calm
Deep Breathing Exercises
Conscious breathing techniques are one of the quickest and most effective ways to shift into a relaxed state of mind. By breathing deep into your belly, you are directly stimulating the vagus nerve. Deep breathing has an internal massaging effect on the organs and nerves in the abdomen. Focusing on the breath centers the mind, melts away tension, and gets you in touch with what is happening in your body.
While you are doing breathwork practices, try to focus on expanding your belly and relaxing your shoulders. After a bit, start focusing on expanding your upper chest, filling up your lungs fully and gently releasing the breath and any tension along with it.
Meditation and Mindfulness Practices
Even if you don’t have a consistent meditation practice (yet!?!), you can still lead a mindful life that can help you experience the positive effects of the vagus nerve. Practicing mindfulness can be infused into your daily activities. Focusing on the present moment, even while you are cooking dinner or taking the dog for a walk, can be a powerful way to shift your state of mind into one of calm awareness.
Any meditation technique or mindfulness exercise has the potential to promote the relaxation response of the nervous system, but you can also try visualization to deepen your connection with the vagus nerve.
Visualize the pathway of the vagus nerve flowing from your brain through your heart, and down to the abdomen, consciously tuning into how those areas are feeling. Are your shoulders and neck feeling tight? Does your stomach feel a little tense? Breathe deep and slow, and imagine a glowing light moving down throughout your body and giving special attention to areas that may feel tense or tight. Let the light melt the tension away, continuing to deepen the breath and slow down the mind until you reach a state of calm serenity.
Massage and Acupressure Points
Almost any kind of massage is relaxing and will help to promote parasympathetic activation, but specifically targeting the pathway of the vagus nerve can help you tune into the areas of your body that may need extra attention.
The vagus nerve has a special collection of arteries that provide it with nourishment and assist with maintenance activities. Massage and the compression of acupressure points promote circulation to this artery network, which helps to bring oxygen to the area. This fuels the nerve cells, invigorates neurons, and promotes the removal of wastes created by nerve-firing activity.
Self-massage is a powerful tool and only costs a little time and energy. By starting on the sides of the neck (gently!) and working down to the abdomen, you can directly massage areas that are intertwined with the nerve.
Even better, ask a loved one to trade shoulder massages so both of you can enjoy the relaxing benefits the vagus nerve can provide!
Yoga Poses for Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Yoga poses, or asanas, can stretch and stimulate the vagus nerve directly. These gentle movements have a massaging effect on the nerve as well as the muscles and arteries all around it. This, along with deep breathing and cultivating a meditative state of mind, makes yoga a powerful activator of the vagus nerve.
Poses that involve neck stretches and abdominal contraction and expansion are especially helpful. Gentle twists and side bends help to gently activate the nerve and promote circulation to the areas where the nerve runs through.
If you aren’t into the yoga tradition, you can simply stretch in ways that feel good to your abdomen, back, neck, and shoulders to help promote the soothing effects and health of the vagus nerve.
Music Therapy and Sound Healing
Humming, singing, and toning all send vibrations through the pathway of the vagus nerve. The gentle vibes relax the muscles and nerves in your neck, throat, chest, and upper abdomen and have a soothing and massaging effect on the nerves. You don’t have to have a beautiful voice for this to be effective, and you can sing along to almost any kind of music.
Humming can be done at almost any time, but it is nice to set aside some time in a quiet place to fully feel the relaxing effects. Toning is the practice of making long, drawn-out vowel sounds while inducing a meditative mental state, and is a great way for beginners to focus their minds. Singing bowls, tuning forks, drumming, or playing other instruments can also be effective.
Even just listening to tranquil music can activate the relaxation responses in the body. Slower rhythms will have more relaxing effects, and you can find music that is made for its healing vibrations and soothing tones.
Nutritional Support for the Vagus Nerve
The complex network of our nervous system is filled with neurons, neurotransmitters, and nerve fibers that need nourishment to function properly. A nutritious diet is really important to the health of the nerves and the cells that maintain their functions.
To give the vagus nerve the support it needs, make sure you are giving a strong nutritional foundation to your nervous system so it can maintain healthy functioning even in times of extra busyness.
Essential nutrients for nervous system health include:
Relaxing the Vagus Nerve With Herbal Nervines
An herbal nervine is a plant that has nourishing or soothing effects on the nervous system and provides calming effects on the mind and body.
Nervines can also help you build your resistance to daily stress by taking them long-term. Herbs like ashwagandha and milky oats are potent nervines that have gentle but powerful effects on nervous system health. Reishi, a functional mushroom, is also a great choice for long-term support of the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Herbs that support the nervous system include:
Be prepared for the holiday rush by supporting your nervous system and getting in touch with the power of the vagus nerve to bring a sense of calm into your daily life. Nourishing the nervous system with supportive herbs and nutrients that you will find in ZenWell® and MagWell® is a also great way to strengthen your resilience to daily stress.
Make sure this holiday season you give yourself the gift of health and take the time to enjoy connecting with those around you. The vagus nerve holds many gifts that can change how we interact and respond to the world, and you can tap into this potential to give yourself a moment of peace and tranquility even at the busiest time of year.