Hot take, the mind/body connection is real.
What I mean is that even though it seems as though your stress and anxiety symptoms are “all in your head,” they aren’t. Your thoughts and feelings are affecting every aspect of your body. Conversely, information from your body can affect what’s going on in your brain.
This is why your anxiety symptoms can manifest in your brain, your body, and your behavior.
If you are an avid follower of all things mental health, you may have noticed that the vagus nerve is gaining mainstream attention. Especially if you frequent Instagram or TikTok.
There’s a good reason why the vagus nerve is getting all of this publicity. It’s closely tied to mental and emotional health. It’s quite literally the cord that creates the mind-body connection!
Vagus is Latin for “wanderer”. The vagus nerve (or nerves as there are actually two of them.) is the LONGEST nerve in your body. It begins at your brain stem, connecting and affecting several organs in your body, and ends at your colon.
Fun fact, those of you who meditate and/or are yoga enthusiasts may also notice that the vagus nerve’s route is similar to your chakra system.
Coincidence? I think not!
The vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system, your “rest and digest.” It influences your breathing, digestive function, and heart rate. (Jordan Fallis, 2017) It’s responsible for slowing the body down after a period of alarm and/or stress.
The vagus nerve relays messages from the brain to the body, telling your heart and breathing to slow down. It’s also responsible for that feeling we refer to as ‘gut instinct. ‘ (Visceral feelings and gut instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve.) It is like your best friend who tells you to “Pump the brakes!” when your anxiety or stress is getting the better of you.
Like your brakes, the better shape your vagus nerve is in, the easier and more quickly you can get out of ‘fight or flight’. Because it interacts with so many different organs it is important to know how to soothe and stimulate the nerve so that you can get back to ‘rest and digest’ with ease.
So you have to think about the tone of your vagus nerve.
I’m not talking about “tone” in the way I would with the aforementioned best friend who may tell you to chill out calmly and lovingly, or while practicing tough love. I’m talking about tone as in working a muscle.
Great, one more thing we have to focus on during workouts!
Well, not exactly, toning is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Having a ‘higher’ vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
In 2010, researchers found a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. (Jordan Fallis, 2017)
Now here’s the good news. It’s not hard to tone your vagus nerve. In fact, there is no strength or cardio training involved at all!
But there are some interesting ways to get your vagus nerve in shape.
Cold exposure is one of the more intriguing ways to activate the vagus nerve, hence my TikTok reference. You may have seen creators who are dealing with anxiety symptoms submerge their faces in ice-cold water. They’re not doing this in order to go viral. Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve.
Exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic response and increase parasympathetic activation through the vagus nerve.
Depending on where you are in the country, stand outside for 30 seconds without a coat, gloves, and a hat (Do NOT try this if your location is dangerously cold, for the love of God!)
If you aren’t feeling like sticking your face in ice-cold water or standing outside without a coat in sub zero temps, (and WHO could blame you?) you can try ending your next shower with 30 seconds of cold water, and then progress to a longer period of time.
Another way to tone up your vagus nerve is by, say it with me, DEEP BREATHING.
It is believed that deep full breathing helps the ‘baroceptors’ or the highly sensitive neurons in your neck to activate, telling your heart rate to slow down. It’s yet another way that you are able to get that sympathetic nervous system to take control.
Take a deep belly breath expanding your diaphragm. Then exhale long and slow. Feel that? It’s your vagus nerve getting all kinds of toned!
Singing, humming, or chanting help with the part of the vagus nerve that is connected to your vocal cords.
Dr. Datis Kharrazian author of “Why Isn’t My Brain Working?” also recommends gargling water before you swallow it as a way to stimulate your vagus nerve. Gargling! *Some researchers have noted that gargling is more anecdotal than a proven technique but still found it worth mentioning in their own articles*
Touch helps tone the nerve. Tapping, massage, rubbing your feet and hands, getting hugs, or hugging yourself (No really, it works!!) gives a solid dose of oxytocin which stimulates the vagus nerve.
Your gut factors in vagal toning, because of course it does. The gut factors into EVERYTHING! Remember, the vagus nerve is the messenger of the brain so if it’s getting bad data from your gut; your body and your brain are going to be playing a game of telephone with a less than stellar outcome.
Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum (common probiotics.) have been found to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression by causing positive changes in the GABA receptors in the brain.
Simply put, this means that taking care of your belly is also great for your brain.
In addition to probiotics, Omega 3 has also been shown to help with the vagus nerve by increasing heart rate variability (HRV), which helps raise your vagus tone. Meditation also increases HRV and benefits vagal tone in a similar way.
If you’ve been with us for a while, following Drs. Fielder and Huser, you’ll notice that a lot of these techniques sound familiar. They’ve been encouraging the same exercises and dietary changes for over two decades. They’ve touted the benefits of things like singing, gut health, and touch, and I’m sure if you had a dime for every time we mentioned meditation and BREATHING you’d be rich.
There’s a reason behind all of that and the reason is, science!
The research involved in understanding the relationship between your brain and body is fluid and has made significant leaps, but there are still a lot of people who want to separate what’s going on in our brains from what’s going on with our bodies and in our behavior.
The treatment of issues like the symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression have to be holistic. Your brain controls every aspect of your body, so if your brain is getting the message wrong for whatever reason, that message will be relayed through your vagus nerve, and your body will act accordingly.
The best part about learning the science of anxiety is that you get a more concrete idea of the “whys” to your symptoms which can better help you get to the “how” of getting yourself back to your baseline. Whatever that may look like for you.
Both Dr. Fielder and Dr. Huser have worked tirelessly to help their clients understand this connection so that when symptoms arise from any number of areas, they can ask themselves the right questions to get their anxiety meter back down. It’s been their lifes’ work to get as many people as possible to Rethink their Anxiety!
I don’t need to tell you that now more than ever, we all need to learn the most effective ways to tend to our minds and our bodies by treating them as a UNIT instead of two separate entities. As Katy and Laura say, we’ve been at the “ALARM” stage of our Arc of Anxiety for nearly two years. It’s taxing on our brain and body and anything that we can do to get that parasympathetic nervous system engaged, even if it involves gargling*, will help.
We know that so many people are struggling with their stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms and we always encourage anyone who feels like their symptoms are overwhelming to seek out the help of mental health professional. We also want to reiterate that even though anxiety begins with your thoughts, what you are dealing with is not “all in your head.”
Stress, anxiety, and depression can wreak havoc on your physically. It’s vital to be as vigilant with your mental and emotional health during this pandemic as you are with your physical health. It’s all tied together.
Information regarding the vagus nerve is fascinating, ever-evolving, and dense. The rabbit hole I went down researching this was epic, and there’s still so much more information available. I would recommend looking up Dr. Steven Porges who has done groundbreaking work involving this powerful part of the nervous system. Stanley Rosenberg has written a practical self-help guide to soothing your vagus nerve, and Dr. Patrick Nemechek has an effective protocol involving the vagus nerve and the ways that strengthening it can improve a host of behavioral and mental health issues.