With summer coming to an end, school back in session, and the general feeling of coming back to real life after vacations and time off, we’re all dealing with a little more stress right now. Stress is a natural part of life and is what keeps us alive and responding to our environment. The important part is being able to utilize the stress when it’s appropriate, and relax when it’s over. That’s where the vagus nerve comes in:
This nerve comes out of your skull behind your ear, runs along the front of your neck, and connects with each organ in our bodies. It’s job is to switch your body from Sympathetic Response (fight or flight) into Parasympathetic Response (rest and digest). When we used to be chased by tigers, our sympathetic nervous system would send blood and energy to our muscles so we could fight or run. After the tiger gave up and left us in peace, our vagus nerve would trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to active and slow our heart and start digestion back up. It is important to have both responses working effectively. Stress motivates us to continue forward, but we need to rest afterward.
The problem we run into now is that there are many more low grade, chronic stressors affecting us, such as traffic and deadlines at work. The body starts having a hard time knowing when to rest and digest, so we tend to stay on high alert for longer than is healthy. This can lead to sluggish digestion, acid reflux, and constipation, as well as high blood pressure and anxiety. The good news is, there are some things you can do to help yourself to shift back into that more relaxed state.
Make A Phone Call
Since your vagus nerve leaves your skull behind your ears and travels down to your heart, lungs, and digestive organs, holding yourself where the nerve is close to the surface can help engage it. You can place one hand behind your neck, and your other hand can be placed on your chest or belly, depending on whether you feel stressed in your chest or maybe a little nauseated. The idea is to form a connection between your hands to engage the nerve below. I like to encourage my clients to think about making a phone call between the hands. The hand behind the neck dials and waits for the ring, and the hand on the chest/belly picks up, and the connection is made!
Alternately, you can simply massage around and on the ears, tugging slightly if it feels good.
Get Some Fresh Air
Breathing isn’t just about getting oxygen. Bringing air into your body deeply and with intention is a great way to engage the branches of your vagus nerve that connect with your lungs and digestive system. A tight diaphragm can impinge the nerve function, which is part of the reason we tend to breathe shallowly or even hold our breaths when we’re under stress. Full, expansive breathing into the belly and expanding the chest in all directions can massage the organs, release the pressure of the diaphragm on the nerve, and engage that parasympathetic response.
Break Out the Showtunes!
Now let’s bring it all together! Just like stimulating the vagus nerve from the outside helps to calm you down, so can stimulation from the inside. Singing and chanting create vibrations in the throat and head, very close to where the nerve leaves the skull. Lower, longer tones really help to engage the nerve and stimulate relaxation. Christina’s sound healing groups are a great way to learn chants that will help calm the nervous system, and the sound vibrations of a group are incredibly powerful. Sing opera in the shower, rock out to the classics in the car, or even hum under your breath on the bus.
All of these self-care techniques work really well in tandem with most of our services as well. Practice breathing during a Chi Nei Tsang session, feel the vagus nerve glide with Craniosacral Therapy, and hum along with singing bowls during a massage!
Here’s to a healthy Autumn!
Catherine Oliver, LMT, CST-C