July 22, 2020

Feeling Stressed? Let’s go to Vagus, Baby!

Vadin Fomenok/Unsplash

Stress made it so I could barely walk some days.

My muscles would ache even when I hadn’t worked out. I would fall asleep at 7:00 p.m. and was on a repeat burn-out cycle in which I would get so stressed that it would take me weeks to recover. As it is with most of us, I do not have weeks to recover. And frankly, that’s just not how I want to live.

I decided I needed to pay attention to the signs of stress before they got so out of control that I could not function. I started noticing the times and situations in which I’d start to get upset, frustrated, or feel physically exhausted. That was stress.

I found that yoga, pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation can play an enormous role in easing stress and anxiety and reducing inflammation (an underlying cause of many illnesses). In applying these practices to my life with regularity, I became more resilient to stressors as they came up.

But how does it work?

The tools we use in our yoga and meditation practice can help with stress by regulating our nervous system. Researchers who study the powerful mind-body connection have found that a significant aspect of how we react to stress may be the vagus nerve (pronounced just like the famous city in Nevada).

Let’s go to Vagus

The vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve that transmits messages between the brain and the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. It connects our brains to our major organ systems. That means that our breathing, digestion, and heart rate are all directly connected to the vagus nerve. As a result, this neural pathway is a central highway to accessing calm and weathering the storms of life.

High and Low Rollers

“Vagal tone” refers to our body’s ability to effectively react to stress. It impacts whether we feel safe and grounded at any given time. This is why practices that stimulate our vagus nerve can improve our overall sense of security while reducing the effects of stress and inflammation.

People with high “vagal tone” have an easier time moving from a heightened state to a relaxed one. They would, for example, recover faster from a stressful argument with a boss, spouse, or their children than someone with low vagal tone. As a result, these people tend to be healthier and more resilient. Low “vagal tone,” on the other hand, indicates difficultly managing stress, and often shows up as anxiety, negativity, poor digestion, depression, and inflammation.

“I raise you…”

This is where the tools of yoga come into play. Research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve through yoga may improve vagal tone. Yoga increases parasympathetic activity (the relaxation response) as well as heart rate variability—another indicator of stress resilience.

According to a 2016 study at Carnegie Mellon University, published in Biological Psychiatry, 35 people practiced meditation as a way to deal with stress, specifically unemployment in this case. After a period of four months, these test subjects showed higher levels of brain connectivity and lowered inflammation, indicating improved vagal tone.

J. David Creswell, PhD, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon states, “We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience. These changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health.”

Three practices to try now

Conscious Breathing

The fastest way to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is with the breath. To balance any over-stimulation of the sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) nervous system, vagus nerve yoga focuses on using the diaphragm for breathing and extending the length of the exhale. For example, one way to start is with a three-count inhale and a six-count exhale.

Open Your Heart

Yoga postures that open up across your chest and throat can stimulate the vagus nerve. From a seated position, bring your hands to your shoulders. Inhale, open your elbows wide, and lift your chin, expanding across the front of your chest. Exhale and pull your elbows in front of your heart and slightly tuck your chin down. Repeat several times, opening up to the feeling.

Massage the Belly

Not quite literally in this case. You can, however, stimulate the vagus nerve as it passes through your belly with yoga. Start in a tabletop position on all fours with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. On an inhale, lift your head and tilt your hips as you drop your belly down toward the floor moving into Cow Pose. As you exhale, drop your head and hips as you arch through your spine into Cat Pose. Repeat moving with your breath several times as you get a gentle massage for your belly and spine.

Let me know how you get along with these three practices. Did you notice a difference?

Try checking in with yourself both before and after you do these exercises. You may just find yourself feeling more ready for any challenges that come your way.

Are there other practices that you enjoy that bring a sense of calmness to your life? Share them in the comments.

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