Stop what you’re doing for a moment. Take a long sip of air through your nose. Good! Now exhale so slowly that you wouldn’t blow out a birthday candle held right in front of your face. Congratulations! You just hacked into your body’s relaxation response. Easy-peasy, right? A simple, mindful breath just triggered the vagus nerve to let your brain know that all is well, that you are safe. Kind of amazing, isn’t it?
Stimulating the vagus nerve is your shortcut to calm. This long, winding nerve starts at your brain stem and enervates your digestive system, respiratory system and heart, and even your throat and facial muscles. It can be thought of as the regulator of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest response). The health of your vagus nerve is known as vagal tone, and just like muscle tone, your vagal tone can be improved through specific practices. Increased vagal tone is related to decreased inflammation, better prognoses for anxiety and depression, improved focus and attention, and better sleep.
Basically, your body is seeking homeostasis, an even flow between the parasympathetic nervous system (feeling safe and calm) and the sympathetic nervous system response (fight-flight-flee response to stress or danger). Your brain is constantly scanning for input from your nervous system – am I safe? Do I need to run? What’s that sound? Is it OK to sleep? And your nervous system supplies that information through your five senses. The brain then analyzes that information and sends back a message of safety (the parasympathetic system) or danger (the sympathetic system) and your body responds accordingly. This could be an increase in heart rate and a thickening of the blood if there is a perceived threat. Or, if all seems calm, a relaxation of the shoulders and a settling of the digestive system.
You can hack into this stimulus-response system by promoting healthy vagal tone. That means when the brain is scanning the body, the vagus nerve is sending calm, safe messages back to the brain, which then increases the body’s relaxation response. It’s like a feel-good feedback loop! And yes, this works for your children, too! Here are some ways to build a healthy vagal tone:
- Breathing: Science has shown that slow, mindful, deep breaths improve vagal tone. This is especially true if you can make your exhale longer than your inhale. Experiment with a count that works for you. Try to inhale to a count of four, filling your belly and your chest. Then exhale slowly to a count of six or eight. Repeat a time or two.
- Half-Smile: Remember how your vagus nerve has tentacles in your facial muscles? By simply curling your lips up into a half-smile and letting your jaw relax, your vagus nerve sends happy, calm messages to your brain. You might just find immediate subtle changes to your emotional state and mood!
- Heart Openers: Back bending stretches stimulate the vagus nerve, which then tells your brain you are safe. So reach your arms open wide and lift your heart to the sky. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Add a half smile and a deep breath and your vagus nerve will be singing!
- Soft Belly: Since the vagus nerve is woven throughout your digestive system, relaxing your belly may improve vagal tone. A few rounds of cat-cow massages the digestive system and spine, combining the softening of the belly and a back bend.
- Meditation: In particular, the Loving Kindness Meditation has been shown to improve vagal tone as well as an increase in social connections and more positive emotions.
- Guided Meditation: In Kidding Around Yoga, we end our classes with a trip to the Secret Garden. Any kind of deep, still meditation (like Yoga Nidra) works to slow down the mind and calm the nervous system.
With these simple practices, you and your whole family can develop habits that promote emotional balance and reduce stress.
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