With so much to do and so little time between holiday parties, family get togethers, and community events, did you ever find yourself crossing your arms, clenching your jaw, or perhaps even tapping your foot during this holiday season? Do you also find yourself suffering from increased headaches, TMJ disfunction, or digestive issues because of stress? In this month’s Educator’s Corner, we will discuss the vagus nerve, a powerhouse of the cranial nerves, that may be adding to your dis-ease this time of year. More importantly, we will be discussing what can be done to help you be your best self in this crazy winter wonderland.
What is Vagus Anyway? (Nope. Not the City.)
Without further hesitation, let’s introduce our main player in this internal hubbub, the vagus nerve. Running from the brain stem through the neck, chest, and abdomen, the vagus nerve helps with regulation of internal organ function such as digestion, sneezing, swallowing, coughing, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Along with helping to regulate the body, this fantastic nerve also plays a key role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system, helping our body return to a resting state after a flight, fight, or freeze response. When functioning at optimal capacity, this nerve helps us breath in a regulated pattern, digest food and dispose of waste regularly and efficiently, and control our heart rate, keeping our body cool and collected throughout the day.
However, as you and I well know, due to stress, change, trauma, or any number of outside and inside stimulants, the body is not always cool and collected. The truth is, the human body is often panicked, stressed, or overstimulated. Especially during the most wonderful time of the year. So, what happens to our cool and collected vagus nerve when the body is overstimulated? The more signals coming in from the body and brain the harder the vagus nerve has to work to keep up, so it processes faster, increasing heart rate and breathing, and decreasing digestion and waste disposal, preparing the body to enter the central nervous system, fight, flight, fawn, or freeze. Although a natural and healthy response to prepare the body for an emergency, when the vagus nerve enters an overstimulated state for a long period of time, it becomes stuck in a firing pattern, preparing the body to be in the CNS state of action and reaction. Over time, this can take a toll on the body. But there is good news. By learning to reset the vagus nerve, helping it to slow down and remember the parasympathetic nervous system, the body can return from a state of constant fight, flight, freeze, or fawn to a resting, digesting, and healing state.
The experts on google might suggest a hot or cold compress on the chest or back, taking an ice bath or cold shower, or listening to vagus nerve activating music, also called ASMR. Who has time for all of that and holiday shopping? Not me. So I’ve taken the liberty of simplifying the list to items that take 30 seconds or less. Below are my favorite simple vagus nerve stimulation exercises.
***This is an educational blog. Any new activity should be done with the approval of a medical team qualified to help on your individual health journey. These exercises are intended to help individuals to achieve a greater sense of well-being.***
Five Ways to Activate the PNS and calm the Vagus Nerve
1. Ear Pulls
-Place tips of fingers behind the ear, creating a “C” shape with hands and cupping ears.
-Pull forward, pulling ears slightly forward at the point of connection between ear and side of the head.
2. Breathwork -Deep Breathing-
-Inhale through the nose while counting to ten, be sure to engage the diaphragm
-Exhale slowly through the mouth while counting to ten, be sure to push all air out of lungs using abdominal muscles.
-Repeat 3-7 times.
3. Occipital Release
-Place tips of fingers gently at the lower ridge of the skull.
-Pull gently toward the sky. Can move neck slowly backward, forward, and to each side as desired.
-Once done, return neck to resting and slowly release the fingers.
4. Shen Min Tsubo Point
-A point on the upper ridge of the ear, the Shen Min acupoint, when sends signals of stimulation and calming to the brain as well as takes pressure away from the vagus nerve.
-To activate Shen Min, gently take the pointer and thumb fingers of the hand on the same side as the ear and press on the soft cartilage at the tip of the ridge of the ear.
-Pull gently up and out, away from the body.
5. Tongue between teeth -add humming for greater effect-
Place the tongue between the front of the teeth. This sends the signal to the brain to relax the jaw, releasing pressure on the vagus nerve and allowing the PNS system in the body to activate. If desired, add a hum to the routine to help the nervous system to reset and recalibrate. (rezzimax.com)