As many of you know, I am an anxious person and always have been. Such is often the fate of Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs). I’m always looking to find new and effective tools to both reduce my own anxiety and to pass onto my anxious clients. I’ve written about this topic previously and you can check them out here:
In the past couple of years, I have been learning about the vagus nerve which governs our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response, along with simple methods to turn off this response and turn on ‘rest and digest’ instead.
One of my favourite tools comes from Tara Brach and is part of the RAIN meditation– simply putting a hand over your heart. This simple act of self-compassion also has a radical effect on one’s nervous system. It never fails to bring me out of being ‘hijacked by my limbic system’ when I’m emotionally triggered and back into my body and switches on my neocortex so that I can think rationally.
I recently bought the book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve by Stanley Rosenberg in an attempt to educate myself on how to help clients regulate their nervous systems when they get triggered and go ‘reptilian’. I am embarrassed to say that try as I might, I kept glazing over trying to read it as it’s very scientific and I consider myself as being ‘allergic’ to science.
I learn best from people demonstrating simple hands-on techniques, so I’ve included my two favourite videos which do this beautifully at the end of this post. The next section is adapted from an excellent resource I found called, How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health by Jordan Fallis:
It is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, influencing your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
Research shows that exposing your body to cold temperatures on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve.
Esther: The unbelievably brave souls I see swimming in the ocean by my house in the middle of winter must be very relaxed! While I admire their tenacity, the best I can do in this regard is to splash my face with cold water once in a while.
Deep and Slow Breathing
Deep and slow breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve.
Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.
Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. One study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation.
The vagus nerve can be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massage (reflexology) has been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response.
The videos below teach you how to use vagus nerve exercises to reduce anxiety. I have tried all of them myself and found them very effective. Try them all and see for yourself!