Feeling a bit stressed? Burnt out? Overwhelmed? Restless at night?
Feel like some relaxation techniques might be of use but not really feeling the meditation/mindfulness vibe?
How to activate your vagus nerve – and why you might want to!
There are some cheeky ways to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system that might feel a little less hippy to you. I would never suggest you rule out the above as I think mindfulness has a hugely beneficial role to play in most people's lives
However, I also appreciate that individuals need to find ways that work for them. If you prefer something a little more direct then there are ways to stimulate your vagus nerve.
What is your parasympathetic nervous system?
Your nervous system is divided two ways.
Into the central (CNS) and peripheral (PNS) nervous systems. CNS includes all those in the brain and PNS is all nerves or parts of nerves which pass into the rest of your body.
Also into the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PsNS to avoid confusion) nervous systems. These form your autonomic nervous system - ie the control of what goes on in the background without you having much conscious control over it. The sympathetic nervous system activates all the processes involved in 'fight or flight'; pupil dilation to allow light in, increased heartbeat and decreased activity in the digestive tract. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to maintain a state of calm. It helps decrease resting heart rate and increase gut motility, reduce the release of cortisol and generally to reduce stress levels. The vagus nerve is a major instrument of the parasympathetic system.
The easiest way to stimulate your vagus nerve is to engage in some deep abdominal breathing. Simple and free!
How to get it right...
Most of us breathe from our chest/breast area. If you lie on your back and take a deep breath in, you may notice your chest rising, rather than your abdomen. The first thing you need to do is to learn to breathe from your abdomen, before you can learn to breathe slowly and deeply from your abdomen. Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. As you take deep breaths in and out, you need to direct the movement t your abdomen. Your chest should barely be rising and falling. While your abdomen should rise and swell out as you take deep breaths in (no prizes for a flat belly here) and should fall as you breathe the air out from deep down in your lungs. You've probably already slowed your breathing to do this. Good!
At rest your average breaths per minute are 10 to 14. Try to slow this down to 5 to 7 breaths per minute. Count as you breathe in and out so that you can work towards breathing in for 4 counts and out for 8 counts. Making the exhalation longer than the inhalation will help stimulate the vagus nerve. Try to breathe in through your nose and out through a small parting of your lips, which make the process more conscious and may enable you to exhale more deeply.
Concentrating on breathing will also help bring your awareness to your body and may help your muscles to relax as you release the tension in them – especially those used in upper rib (chest) breathing. These are meant for use in deep breathing (during exertion) and if they are recruited regularly they will add to neck and shoulder pain and may cause bad posture which will cause further muscle fatigue.
So although it may seem like an incredibly easy and possibly pointless technique, it has many benefits. Techniques which activate your parasympathetic nervous system will naturally help improve memory (by stimulating the amygdala which consolidates memories), improve your digestive function, fight depression and lower blood pressure. It's also been reported that the vagus nerve will stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters and boost your immune system.