How to Unwind from Stress and Overwhelm, Starting Right Now
I first recognized the extent to which anxiety was running my life while I was on a call with my nurse practitioner.
She had just reported that my lab results came back “normal”.
Strangely, my normal results were disappointing to me. I had been feeling far from normal. I was desperate to feel better.
So I followed up with, “Then why do I feel like I’m having a daily heart attack?”
“Oh—that’s from stress.”
That conversation took place over ten years ago. Ever since, I’ve been on a quest to feel better. Yoga, massage, and vacations offered temporary relief, but there was no escaping the discomfort of stress.
After much research, and ultimately teaming up with a functional medicine doctor, I now have the tools to better manage my stress, restore calm, and feel better. These tools are the result of a deeper dive into the power of the mind-body connection.
With the help of these tools, you can feel better, too.
A robust mind-body connection is essential for maintaining balance and calm. Pilates is one way to build communication between the two, while gaining strength, balance, and flexibility in the process.
At a deeper level, though, Pilates and the mind-body connection is rooted in toning your vagus nerve. Understanding the vagus nerve is key for unwinding from stress and overwhelm.
What Is the Vagus Nerve, and Why Does It Matter?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, originating at the brain stem and extending all the way to the gut. It is largely responsible for sensing, processing, and regulating the vast majority of automatic functions of the body. The vagus nerve helps regulate your heartbeat, breath rate and depth, constriction and dilation of blood vessels, and digestion, to name a few.
When you hear the phrase, “Trust your gut”, it really means “Trust your vagus nerve”. The vagus nerve is the information superhighway between mind and body.
A toned vagus nerve is essential for our health and well-being. Vagus nerve activation turns on the rest/ digest/ calming branch of the nervous system (known as the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS).
Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart rate speeds up a little with every inhalation, and slows on the exhalation. A larger difference in heart rate through a breath cycle is indicative of better vagal tone. This means that your body can recover more quickly from stress, returning to its natural relaxation state.
A healthy vagus nerve primes the body for healing, allowing every wellness-enhancing action to become more effective! Because the vagus nerve communicates with so many organs (from the brain all the way to the gut) a healthy vagus nerve can affect sleep quality, immunity, blood sugar levels, mood, detoxification, and stress resilience.
If you are feeling wound up a lot of the time, toning the vagus nerve (and healing the nervous system) becomes vitally important.
So how do we do that?
Practical Tips to Tone the Vagus Nerve and Unwind
While I have been using a combination of electronic stimulation and meditation to activate the vagus nerve, there are plenty of other readily available options.
Do one or more of these on a regular basis to tone the vagus nerve:
1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. As in yoga, Pilates, or meditation, breathing deeper “belly” breaths (rather than shallower breathing from the top of the lungs) stimulate the vagus nerve. Place one hand on the lower belly, the other over your heart, inhaling through the nose, from the bottom to the top hand. Then exhale through the nose, from the top hand to the bottom. Work toward a 10-second breath cycle (5 seconds to inhale/ 5 seconds to exhale), but don’t get too caught up with the timing. Just breathe, for 2 to 20 minutes at a time.
2. Humming. Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. Hum a song, or various musical notes, or a yoga “OM” until you feel a shift in your energy.
3. Washing your face with cold water. While the mechanism isn’t fully understood, cold water (or a full-on cold shower!) stimulates the vagus nerve.
4. Meditating. Meditation slows down the mind and body. Focusing on breath and body allows us to access the power of presence. Loving kindness meditation is particularly effective, as it promotes goodwill toward ourselves and others. A 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok found that positive emotions improved both social connection and vagal tone.
5. Balancing the gut microbiome. The vagus nerve communicates with your gut bacteria, and modulates inflammation based on whether or not it detects harmful organisms there. This is the way in which the gut can affect your mood, stress levels, and overall inflammation in the body.
To balance the gut microbiome, begin my reducing added sugar and processed foods from your diet. The gut regards the ingredients in packaged snacks as foreign substances, creating an inflammatory response. A poor diet creates chronic inflammation and a heightened stress response. Reduce processed foods from your diet and replace them with gut-healthy whole fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. With packaged items, look for shorter, simpler (and recognizable) ingredient lists.
Improving vagal tone is a practice. It took me some time to adopt a consistent one, so be patient with yourself. The next time you’re feeling frenzied and looking for a quick way to feel better, start with the breath. Or a quick splash of cold water!
Slow breathing may seem too inconvenient for those of us on the too-busy treadmill … yet it’s free, accessible, and amazingly effective.
Spending even a brief time in meditation helps me restore balance, gain clarity, and feel better in my body.
It’s a radical way for getting unstuck from our emotions by using the body to override our mental chatter.
And who doesn’t desire a kinder, more peaceful inner dialogue?
Invest in healing body and mind by toning your vagus nerve.
Which technique will you try? Hit reply and let me know. (I am a vagus nerve geek, so if you have questions, ask away!)