Whoever you are, wherever you live, stress can be the inescapable result of the challenges life throws our way. Although no one is exempt, have you noticed some people can take life’s difficulties and bounce back time and time again while others crumble or over-react to the smallest setback? Although genetics and other factors contribute to that bounce back ability, the good news is, we can all strengthen our body’s ability to relax faster and recover from stressful situations.
With each challenge we face, minor or major, we go into sympathetic nervous system arousal – the body’s system of protecting us from perceived danger. It’s like stepping on the car accelerator – a rush of adrenaline is released to ready you for action “fight or flight”. We all need this response. We also need a counter response, parasympathetic arousal, to calm our organs and help us relax when the perceived danger is over – applying the brake. This brake response is controlled by the Vagus nerve, the primary driving force of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Called the “wandering nerve” the vagus winds it’s way from the brain to the torso via key organs such as the heart and lungs, before branching out in the gut. It regulates heart and breath rate, most of our organs, and digestive tract. It’s involved in eye contact, facial expressions, controls our voice tone and manages the release of hormones. The management and processing of emotions happens via the vagus between the heart, brain and gut which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states. This communication super highway relays a nonstop stream of information between the body and the brain.
The stronger our vagal response or vagal tone, the better our body is at relaxing after a stressful event. Higher vagal tone is also linked to physical and psychological wellbeing. For some of us, an amped-up perception of stress causes the vagus to operate at a lower capacity, low vagal tone. This underperformance, is associated with inflammation, depression, negative moods, loneliness, heart attacks, stroke and greater sensitivity to stress.
Simple everyday actions such as humming, singing, gargling, laughter, chanting, taking probiotics, fasting, massage and chewing gum all stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone. However, life’s difficulties vary and to improve resilience we need a flexible as well as a strong vagal response – the ability to navigate between the accelerator and brake to meet the demands of life in appropriate ways. There are many techniques we could dive into which keep the vagus stimulated and working optimally, those below are some of the simplest to implement, and have solid scientific backing. The key is to practice training the vagus nerve daily.
Deep Breathing Engages the Brake:
Use this daily and after the times you’ve felt that rush of adrenaline, agitation, uncomfortable gut feeling, to help your body relax faster.
- Take a few minutes to breathe slowly in and out through your nostrils, gradually making the exhale longer than the inhale. This accelerator – brake breathing can lower heart rate and blood pressure very quickly. The power of the vagal brake. Deep abdominal and other yoga breathing practices also engage the brake.
Yoga Takes the Edge Off:
Introduce a daily dose of yoga into your schedule.
- Researchers believe yoga helps increase resilience because of its positive impact on vagal tone. This study by Dr Chris Streeter found yoga-based practices correct under activity of the PNS and GABA systems, in part through stimulation of the vagus nerve. Yoga also improves mood and emotional regulation, both associated with reductions in the stress hormone cortisol.
Work on Your Emotional Health:
Engaging in activities which promote positive emotions and social connection have positive effects on health, through enhanced vagal activation. Loving-kindness & self-compassion are two meditations to try out.
- A 2013 study found loving- kindness meditation increases positive emotions. It was the first study to show how social connectedness provides the important link between positive emotions and better health and the first to find vagal tone isn’t simply a fixed characteristic – it can also be improved through sustained enhancements in an individual’s emotions and social perceptions. The researchers found even a modest amount of practice cultivating positive emotions could drive significant changes in vagal tone and physical health.
- In 2016 researchers established feelings of self-compassion were associated with increased vagal tone and that self-compassionate individuals have more adaptive emotion regulation abilities and less emotional stress reactions.
Managing Social Behaviours:
Think of walking into a party or business setting and there are no familiar faces around – that uncomfortable gut feeling may trigger – the accelerator. You then scan the room, someone smiles or makes eye, you strike up a conversation or someone you know appears, the gut feeling eases – the brake kicks in.
Dr. Stephen Porges in his Polyvagal Theory proposes engaging socially with others triggers neural circuits that calm the heart, relax the gut, and switch off fear. This social engagement system (SES) is influenced by the myelinated branches of the vagus nerve linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalisation. This system works below our conscious control, monitoring our environment to gauge our level of safety. When we are perceived to be in a “safe” environment the SES operates and we are calm, “danger” lifts the brake and triggers the sympathetic arousal system.
- Dr Porges says the process of using the muscles in our face and head to modulate our social engagement will actively change our physiological state by increasing vagal influences on the heart and actively blunt the sympathetic adrenal system.
By understanding we have the ability to use voluntary behaviours, like smiling, eye contact, intonation to recreate the sense of a safe environment, we then have a strategy to use in stressful situations.
( This is a very simplified explanation of the SES: for more information please search Polyvagal Theory)
Over time, the more experiences you give your body that stimulate the vagus nerve and repeatedly disrupt the patterns of the stress response, the more your body learns when it’s appropriate to shift from arousal and back to ease – Bounce Back Ability.