In recent years, significant societal challenge has been brought into focus - one that resonates deeply with many individuals. The struggle to navigate escalating workloads, mental health concerns, pervasive stress, the lasting emotional aftermath of global and economic crises, and the weight of financial strain and insecurity has become increasingly apparent. The prevalence of anxiety, overstimulation, and burnout has become an all-too-familiar reality for many of us, and the focus has largely been on getting back to "normal", which has left little time for us to process, feel, and heal.
When looking to shift the focus toward care, empathy and understanding, it can be helpful to understand the intricate connection between our nervous system, mental health, and the vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, part of the autonomic nervous system, plays a pivotal role in regulating our body's internal functions and maintaining balance. It is often referred to as the "wandering nerve" due to its extensive reach throughout the body, connecting various organs and systems. One of its major branches, the "vagal tone," is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system - the rest and digest system that induces relaxation.
The Nervous System in Overdrive
In our fast-paced and oftentimes demanding lives, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight response, can be triggered excessively. Chronic stress, work pressure, and a barrage of stimuli can lead to overstimulation, leaving the body and mind in a perpetual state of high alert. This prolonged stress response can contribute to anxiety, burnout, and a range of mental health issues.
Signs Your Nervous System Might Be in Overdrive
Muscle tension and pain
Increased heart rate
Feelings of overwhelm
Loss of motivation
Heightened emotional response
Methods to Calm Your Nervous System
Deep Breathing Techniques:
Diaphragmatic breathing or "belly breathing": Inhale deeply through your nose, letting your abdomen rise, then exhale slowly through your mouth, letting your abdomen fall.
Box breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, and pause for four before the next inhale.
Mindfulness and Meditation:
Guided meditation: Follow a guided meditation to help distract your mind and bring you to the present moment.
Cold showers: Brief exposure to cold water can activate the vagus nerve.
Cold compress: Placing a cold compress on your chest, back of your neck, or forehead can help to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
Moderate aerobic exercise: Engage in activities like walking, jogging, or swimming to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Spend time with loved ones: Positive social interactions can enhance vagal tone.
Massage and Self-Massage:
Abdominal breathing massage: Place your hands on your abdomen and practice deep breathing, feeling the rise and fall of your belly. This gentle massage of the abdominal area can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Neck and throat massages: Gently massaging these areas can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Restorative yoga poses: Gentle poses and stretches can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Deep and Slow Chewing:
Chew food slowly and mindfully: This can stimulate the vagus nerve through the connection with the digestive system.
Inhale calming scents: Essential oils like lavender or chamomile may promote relaxation.
Spend time in nature: Take a walk in a park or forest to benefit from the calming effects of nature.
Listen to calming music: Slow-tempo music or nature sounds can help regulate the nervous system.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR):
Tense and relax muscle groups systematically to release physical tension.
Humming and Singing:
Hum or sing: Vibrations in the vocal cords can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Repeat positive affirmations to promote a positive mindset and reduce stress.
Grounding techniques can be beneficial for stimulating the vagus nerve and promoting a sense of calm and well-being.
Swaying and Rocking:
Gentle swaying or rocking movements can help to self-soothe and calm the nervous system.
Gently massage or tug on your earlobes. The vagus nerve has branches in the ears, and this stimulation can have a calming effect.
Gargle with water, making sure the sound is deep and resonant. This can activate the vagus nerve through its connection to the vocal cords.
Take a slow, mindful walk, paying attention to each step. Take your shoes off and walk barefoot, feeling the ground beneath your feet. Walking mindfully can activate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
Close your eyes and engage in guided imagery or visualisation exercises. Imagine a peaceful scene and focus on the sensory details to promote relaxation.
It's important to note that individual responses vary, and it may take some experimentation to find the techniques that work best for you. Incorporating a combination of these practices into your routine can contribute to a more relaxed nervous system and improved overall well-being.
Prioritising Mental Health
Recognising when your nervous system needs a break and implementing strategies to care for your mental health can foster resilience and reduce the risk of burnout. Understanding the vagus nerve and its role in the nervous system is a gateway to unlocking strategies for well-being. By adopting a holistic approach that addresses the mind and body, we pave the way for a journey towards balance, resilience, and sustained mental health.