Manage Chronic Stress By Enhancing Your Vagal Tone
“If you can master your brain and how it works, you can master your life”.
So many of my clients suffer from stress and the others are more stressed than they realise. A little stress can be beneficial, but too much stress can kill - they don’t call it the silent killer for nothing. Whether you’re stuck in traffic, stuck in a toxic relationship or work place, or just feeling overwhelmed by the day ahead, too much stress is problematic and is often a contributor to almost all chronic health conditions. Some elements of chronic stress can show itself through anxiety, depression, bingeing on food and alcohol and chronic systemic inflammation. It can affect the gut and cause it to go out of balance eventuating in disease.
You can use your own neurophysiology to manage stress by enhancing your vagal tone. It involves activating and strengthening the longest nerve in your body called the vagus nerve. Monks and yogis discovered this a long time ago and found that if they strengthened their vagus nerve they could alleviate suffering. In fact strengthening their vagal tone allowed them to control their breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, core body temperature and even their immune systems.
To understand vagal tone you will need to understand a few key features of the nervous system. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and it actually comes in a pair. Each nerve originates in one of your brain’s hemispheres and then traverses down throughout the body throughout all of the major organs. It is the major nerve involved in the autonomic nervous system - which controls how relaxed or stressed someone is. It connects our emotions to our physiologic responses. There are two aspects to the nervous system, one is the sympathetic nervous system and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system. When someone is stressed or faces a threat the SNS sends signals from the brain to other organs of the body to facilitate the stress response. The heart increases heart rate. The lungs increase breathing and the muscles tense up. It also sends signals to stop digestion. Blood is taken away from the gut and the digestive process and taken to the muscles because the body doesn’t want to spend precious energy digesting food when you need to run away from or fight a threat. The SNS also stimulates the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Sympathetic activity increases the immune response to increase inflammatory signals in the body. From an evolutionary point of view this would have been advantageous to fight any potential pathogens and all of these physiologic responses would have been beneficial and did help us survive.
However, in today’s modern world, we haven’t evolved yet to cope with our chronic stressors that are activating our systems almost constantly. This is where the Parasympathetic nervous system comes in and is the other part of our nervous system. PNS activity activates the rest and digest response and is in charge of relaxing the body. The vagus nerve is the major nerve of the PNS. It helps to oppose and dampen the stress response and helps the body to relax. It sends signals to achieve the opposite of the SNS and asks the heart to decrease heart rate, slow breathing and increase blood flow to the digestive system to optimise function. It regulates the immune system by decreasing pro-inflammatory markers.
So if you suffer from chronic stress, anxiety and depression you are more than likely dealing with and over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system and an under-activation of the PNS.
One very simple way to decrease sympathetic nervous system activity is by working with the vagus nerve to enhance vagal tone. So how can you do this? There are up to 40 different ways to do this, but here are some of the easiest, cheapest and most enjoyable:
Deep breathing - doing this consistently is very powerful.
Cold showers - exposing yourself to the cold activates the vagus nerve.
Yoga - maintaining slow deep breathing while doing challenging poses
Humming or singing out loud. Chanting a mantra can also help.
Washing your face with cold water
Use a tongue cleaner
Get a massage
Written by Sarah.