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Stress, Building Resilience, and the Vagus Nerve

“If you want to improve the world, start by making people feel safer.” - Dr. Stephen Porges.

Stress. We all feel it. We hear about it all the time. We think about it all the time. We are consumed by it yet cannot seem to find ways to manage it.

We didn’t evolve to fit into our modern world of rapid-fire information and multitasking, which has taken its collective toll on us. The pandemic has exacerbated the impact of stress on most of us. Stress makes us feel unsafe and puts us in a chronic state of fight or flight. Even as life returns to normal, we seem to be in a chronic state of irritation and don’t understand why.

Understanding our anatomy and physiology in simple terms can be essential in our efforts to destress and live our lives fully.

Enter the vagus nerve.

This powerhouse nerve exits our brainstem and functions as a conduit between our brain and body. It allows our brain to sense what is going on in our body and mediates vital processes like heart rate, digestion, respiration, and vascular function- all systems negatively affected by chronic stress. Depending on the stress level in our long-term environments, different parts of the vagus nerve will be stimulated, affecting how safe we feel. This stimulation determines if we experience states of ease or connectedness, feeling unsafe or overwhelmed, or, unfortunately, feelings of emptiness. Stress was meant to be a short-term experience to get us out of danger. When we are in a chronic state of stress, our more primitive defense mechanisms associated with the vagus nerve are activated, which leaves us feeling more anxious, overwhelmed, and distraught.

Through self-awareness, we can tap into what our nervous system is doing, appreciate it, and develop resilience. Then we can “exercise” the vagus nerve through a “sprinkling” of exercises throughout the day: at a stop light, before bed, or making coffee. Performing these exercises with intention and awareness of the impact on our nervous system can do wonders for our sense of well-being. Try these out:

  1. Humming: Stimulating the vocal cords is a quick way to stimulate the vagus nerve and have a calming effect on the nervous system, as it innervates this part of our body - hum a favorite song a few times a day or hum a tune in the shower.

  2. Deep breathing: Think about a balloon in your belly, fill up the balloon slowly with your inhale, pause a second, and then slowly breathe out, deflating that imaginary balloon with significant control. Try it at red lights.

  3. Smiling and laughing: Socialize with someone or a group that brings you joy. Put yourself in positions regularly to smile and ignite the social engagement centers of the body, which are also under the control of the vagus nerve. Make a facetime call, go for coffee, or take a nature walk with friends. Traveling alone? Smile in the mirror!

These exercises seem simple, and that’s because they are! They don’t “work” by themselves. It is essential to have a general understanding of our nervous system and practice self-awareness. In time, you will handle stressful situations with increased grace and focus.

If you or a loved one would like help integrating these concepts, check out our upcoming Resilience Program @ RTC, a 12-week guided mindfulness and yoga program to improve health & well-being, including weekly accountability measures, in-person workshops and classes, and online resources. Click Here to sign up or learn more!

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