Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all have a reservoir of emotional regulation techniques that we bank upon when we feel overwhelmed. What may be new to us, at least in terminology, is the knowledge that one particular nerve group called the vagus nerve helps us counterbalance our flight or fight response.
The vagus nerve is responsible for involuntary functions of the body such as digestion after eating. In short, it helps our bodies restore homeostasis or equilibrium. Instances of "low vagal tone" (a condition when the vagus nerve is not firing well) are associated with slower physical and emotional recovery after periods of prolonged stress.
A wide array of research gives us certain techniques to help stimulate the vagus nerve to help us feel calmer and more at peace. Here are five.
1. Go pro with probiotics.
Researchers believe that gut bacteria improves brain function partly by improving the functioning of the vagus nerve. For instance, research published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology shows that gut microorganisms can activate the vagus nerve, which can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and brain.
In addition to eliminating junk food and incorporating clean eating habits, including probiotics in your diet can be a good source of healthy bacteria that may help you capitalize on positive vagus nerve activity.
2. Administer cold shocks.
Immersing your face in cold water is thought to indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve by slowing down the heart rate. Evidence of the effectiveness of cold water immersion has been found in many studies.
One research project found that cold-water immersion may help with stress by slowing down the heart rate and re-directing blood flow to the brain. Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that athletes can use cold-water immersion to improve short-term feelings of relaxation.
You can simply try placing an ice pack on the back of your neck or take a cold shower to restore your emotional levels after stressful activities.
3. Incorporate regular massages into your routine.
Various forms of massage may help rebalance activity in the vagus nerve. For instance, research published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that massaging the reflex areas in our feet and hands, also known as "reflexology," can increase vagal tone and, in turn, decrease blood pressure and heart rate levels.
You can try giving yourself a foot massage at home by simply rotating your ankle, rubbing the soles of your feet, and flexing and stretching your toes.
4. Induce vibrations.
Low-frequency vibrations like those created when humming, singing, or chanting can help stimulate the vagus nerve. These nerves are connected to our vocal cords. Therefore, research suggests that singing, even loudly, may activate our autonomic nervous system by massaging the muscles at the back of our throat and ears.
Singing also increases heart rate variability which is associated with relaxation, better stress resilience and adaptation, and higher rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) activity.
5. Laugh for your health.
There is no dearth of studies suggesting the health benefits of laughter. For instance, one study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine showed that a yoga sequence focusing on stretching, chanting, and laughing improved cardiovascular functioning, resulting in significant mood improvements. Other studies have found that laughter helps restore a healthy vagal tone by contracting the diaphragm and pushing air out of the lungs. Even ten minutes of laughter a day is sufficient to produce mental and physical health benefits.