Whether you’re a busy parent, working a high demand job, a competitive athlete or all three! One thing is for sure, life is super busy and we are putting more and more pressure on ourselves and others to be in an ‘always on, high performance’ state.
Have you ever felt so stressed, anxious or over trained to a point that you feel like you’ve done twelve rounds with Mike Tyson! Mentally beat up and totally exhausted?
On the outside you may be great at plastering on a big smile, gritting your teeth and keeping going, but what’s going on inside? and how is your nervous system really dealing with this constant state of stress?
Let’s Explore …
The autonomic nervous system is the network that supplies many of your vital organs and is responsible for regulating the bodies unconscious actions. These are the things we do without having to think, like sending blood around the body. In that nervous system you have three teams, lets talk about the two that have the biggest impact in terms of state:
Team one – The Para’s (Parasympathetic nervous system) This team is there to help you ‘rest and digest’, when you are in a parasympathetic state you are nice and calm, and your nervous system is relaxed.
Team two – The Sym’s (Sympathetic nervous system) when you are in a sympathetic state you are in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Stimulating activities will take you into this high alert state so you are ready to jump into action at a second’s notice.
When we are in The Sym’s state we produce a stress hormone called ‘cortisol’, it’s produced by our adrenal grands and released when we are under physical or mental stress. This is where the term ‘adrenaline rush’ comes from. Whilst it primes your body for action and can be helpful in rare situations, it can also be very unhelpful. Especially if we expose our nervous system to this elevated state for prolonged periods of time.
The cortisol gets driven to the amygdala. This is the fear centre of the brain, and if too much cortisol gets sent there too often it increases the number of neural connections making the state of ‘fear’ much stronger, keeping your mind stuck in constant state of high stress.
We see this in business where people are constantly exposed to high pressure situations such as public speaking, tight deadlines, fear of losing their jobs or public image and in athletes who are putting their bodies under constant physical strain, and their minds through mental strain as they compete week after week.
This is not a problem, until it’s a problem!
Over time this constant pressure starts to change the structure of the brain. The Hippo of the mind (hippocampus) starts to weaken and therefore the ability to learn new things, control stress and recall memories start to deteriorate rapidly. The size of your brain starts to literally shrink!. In particular the pre-frontal cortex, that’s the part of your mind that is responsible for making sure you are able to concentrate, make decisions, judgements and engage in social interactions.
When we are in this sympathetic state, we are stuck in the fear centre and all the things we want and need in the moments that matter are less available to us.
So here’s the thing…
Firstly, relax, it may all sound doom and gloom but it’s not too late. The more you can notice your state, and then bring yourself back into a parasympathetic state ‘rest and digest’, the faster your mind will recover from the high stress situations that we all find ourselves in. Research has shown that we can reverse the impact of high stress. Once we have learnt these strategies you will able to turn your ‘state’ on and off at will. So, how do you do that?…
The answer lays in the vagus nerve – This is one hell of a cool nerve!!
It gets its name from the Latin origin and means ‘wanderer’ which is exactly what it does. It’s the longest nerve in your body and it wanders from the head, down through the back of the neck all the way into your arms and gut! It plays a critical role in sending signals, mostly visceral (sensations) back and forth in a constant two-way communication from the body to the brain and back again!
The better this feedback loop is, the quicker you will be able to relax after experiencing a stress induced state, putting you back in the driving seat and back into a parasympathetic state (relax and digest). Whether that’s during a job interview, presentation, intense gym session or competitive event. You will drop back in much faster.
Pay attention to the Vagal Tone
Yes, it’s all about the vagal tone, the higher the tone of your vagal nerve the faster your body will respond and take you into a parasympathetic state. Relax you don’t need to learn to sing, although singing could come in handy you don’t have to be Mariah Carey or Pavarotti to get you vagal tone nice and high, we just need to train the nerve to hit the high note at will, and here are some ways to train it ….
Acute cold activates the vagus nerve and the neurons in the nerves pathway, doing this on a regular basis lowers the fight or flight response (sympathetic) and increased your rest and digest response (parasympathetic).
Try this: At the end of your shower switch to cold water for 30 seconds, and during a face wash finish up with a cold flannel over your face.
Deep and slow breathing:
Most of us take ten – fourteen breathes per minute. We want to reduce that down to around six breathes per minute. Breathing in deeply from the diaphragm.
Try this: Box breathing every day, in particular when you’re starting to feel stress rising. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, out for a count of 4 and in for a count of 4, repeat four times.
Humming, singing and gargling:
The vagus nerve is connected to the muscles at the back of the throat and when those muscles vibrate they stimulate the vagus nerves, sending it into a parasympathetic state.
Try this – Every time you brush your teeth, spend a minute gargling water and whilst you wash your face hum your favourite song.
There are many forms of meditation and mindfulness, all of which are proven to increase vagal modulation. Not only does meditation increase vagal tone it also connects positive emotions between the brain and the gut.
Try this: If you’re new to meditation start with 3 minutes a day, this will have a positive impact on your vagal tone, this could be sat outside or staring through the window, if you prefer to move about then take a mindful walk by simply halving the speed of your footsteps.
And last but not least … exercise! many neurologist would say exercise should be number one on the list to create a healthy feedback loop, I would agree, and add that listening to a good podcast during exercise will strengthen that feedback loop and vagal tone even more as the new learning engages the hippo (hippocampus) therefore increasing the size of your memory centre … win-win!!
So, if you’re ready to increase your vagal tone and therefore reduce the stress wandering about your body, give these techniques a whirl and take back control of your wellbeing.
You could even end up with a bigger brain!