- On: 28 Sep 2020
- Written by SuzannaW
Most people associate stress with emotions and mood. It is something you feel for a while and then focus on something else. But did you know feeling stressed out affects your nervous system in a longer term?
Stress can actually change the way your brain works, and the connections it has with your outside body. One example of such association is the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
In short, the vagus is one of twelve special nerves that leave the brain directly without using the major highway of the spinal cord. It’s the tenth cranial nerve and its name derives from the Latin word for “wanderer” because it walks through and reaches one organ after the other in the chest and down to the abdomen.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is an automatic part of the nervous system that controls body functions such as fluid secretion in your respiratory system, gastric juice release, bowel movements, and heart beating frequency.
Interestingly, the parasympathetic nervous system gets stimulated when we calm down. That’s why it is easier to have bowel movements after relaxing your body. It is also the reason why your heart frequency drops when you sit comfortably and practice some breathing exercises.
But, what happens if you’re under severe or sustained stress?
How stress affects vagus function
Few nerves are so responsive to stress as the vagus. Let us say we have chronic (sustained) stress at work or after unresolved family problems. When it is severe, your body starts releasing abnormal levels of cortisol and adrenaline. This inhibits your immune system, triggers chronic inflammation, accelerates your heartbeat, interrupts your bowel function, and much more.
Without your vagus, there would be nothing slowing down your heart rate when you’re nervous. It would eventually run out of control. Similarly, the vagus nerve works against the harmful effects of stress in several organs and body systems. But sustained stress can make your vagus nerve exhausted. Your response to stress starts to change, and your body and mind start to give in. That’s why people enter an exhaustion and burnout phase and may completely fall apart physically and emotionally after chronic stress.
But you can train your vagus nerve, increase vagal tone, and recover faster after stress by applying a few recommendations.
Take it easy, one day at a time
Your vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates when you’re relaxed. So, we can improve vagal tone through soothing and relaxing techniques:
- Breathing techniques: Deep and controlled breathing using your diaphragm can activate your vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. It is also very soothing and comforting during stressful times.
- Mindfulness: Yoga, meditation, tai chi, and other techniques build up mindfulness and slowly change the chemistry of your brain. They increase GABA transmission, a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness and serenity.
- Massage: Certain types of massages and trigger points will not only relax your body and mind but directly stimulate your vagus nerve. Foot massages improve vagal stimulation, and massage in your carotid sinus in your neck has similar effects.
- Cold exposure: Taking a cold shower or at least 30 seconds of cold exposure and dipping your face in ice-cold water on a regular basis works as a training for your parasympathetic nervous system.
But above all, destressing requires a correct mindset about problems and solutions. Take one day at a time, spend more time taking care of yourself, and always be mindful about others, making them feel loved and secure. All of this changes your perception and your whole experience of stress and helps you live a fulfilled and happy life.
“The human body has been designed to resist an infinite number of changes and attacks brought about by its environment. The secret of good health lies in successful adjustment to changing stresses on the body.” – Harry J. Johnson
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