When we talk about being stressed we are typically talking about distress, too much stress, stress we can’t cope with. The bodies response to this stress is to activate the fight or flight branch of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system. The autonomic or automatic nervous system often referred to as the “master regulator of your metabolism” has two branches.
The sympathetic but far from actually sympathetic as it keeps us wired and with either in fear and panic and running away from our demons our stressors or actually frozen stuck in place. Very apt description for where many of us are right now. However the other side of the automatic nervous system the counter balancing branch the parasympathetic nervous system gets less talked about.
The parasympathetic nervous system is a large group of nerves covering the whole body and in fact just like the sympathetic branch connects to every cell in the body. Stress is a whole body phenomenon, suffer a stress response and in actually impacts your whole body; muscles, breathing, brain function, digestive function and even your immune system.
The parasympathetic branch specifically activates the aspects of your bodies recovery from stress. So it controls rest and repair functions such as digestion, detoxification and ultimately how your body heals from the stresses and strains of life.
The most important nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system is called the Vagal Nerve. It is the longest and one of the most complex in the body. It is a cranial nerve which means it originates at the base of your skull and connects the brain to the rest of the body. It is responsible for heart rate, blood pressure, sweat and involved in speech.
We spend plenty of time in fight or flight and relying on the sympathetic nervous system to save us from stress. However the yin and yang of this response is to achieve balance we need to spend more time in recovery, rest and healing. To do this we need to access the parasympathetic side. In many ways seeing a tiger running towards us it is easy to switch on our escape and evade response, fight or flight.
Accessing the parasympathetic recovery afterwards is less obvious in part because the tiger may have left but you might now be without food, exhausted, still scared and unsure of what to do next. This is the time when you need to feel calm, gather your thoughts, recovery your energy and repair the body from the fight or flight from that tiger. Being able to do this will lessen the impact of the next stressor or help us avoid it being perceived as a stressor.
Therefore skills to access the parasympathetic nervous system would be very helpful. If we focus on the vagal nerve as the key component of this recovery branch of the nervous system we can hone in what we can do more directly.
Sometimes just saying dont get stressed or avoid stress isnt enough. Likewise someone suggesting you relax, switch off and chill out doesn’t just happen by magic if your bodies balance is towards the sympathetic branch. You need help or extra support prolonging the parasympathetic nervous system activation or sometimes just being able to deliberately access it in the first place.
In terms of strengthening our immunity being able to stimulate vagal nerve allows us to support directly the organs of our immune system such as the spleen and thymus. So whilst we de-stress by using our parasympathetic nervous system we can also strengthen our immune systems. The vagal nerve even connects directly into our colons, so being able to activate it helps lower stress, support the immune system where 80% of our immune cells are made and also by supporting digestion help us have more successful bowel movements. So if you suffer from constipation or acid indigestion this powerful nerve has a say in improving your health. What’s not to love but your vagus nerve?
Our emotions have been shown to impact the vagus nerve so mindfulness and counselling have their place. Feelings of anxiety, worry, guilt, and low self-esteem are high up in the list of emotions that lead to low activity of the vagal nerve.
The microorganisms in our guts have been shown to activate the vagal nerve so alongside mindfulness a tool to help drive vagal nerve activation is adding probiotics to your diet. Abdominal pain or bloating, diarrhoea or constipation, loss of the gag reflex and even trouble drinking liquids are all clues the vagal nerve needs support and probiotics or digestive enzymes could help you cope with stress, support the immune system and reduce digestive symptoms.
Additional techniques that I have tried include;
- Deep breathing
- Cold showers
I also have a certification in Qigong that I like using which is a combination of coordinated postures and movements centred round your breath work.
When I feel it is the right time for me I also use fasting as dietary tool to support recovery and spend more time in a parasympathetic state. The lack of food but the body coping with this actually leads to more energy as the body spends more time repairing itself and in turn activating evolutionary systems to provide us with energy in times of low calorie intake or fasting. I have got really into using a fasting in a box approach that the ProLon Diet 5 day fast provides.
Having it all there in itself takes away a lot of stress in organising and planning a fast as well as having it all there in front of you, the food you need, as you go through it.
A book I love that covers brain function in serious detail but also the role of the parasympathetic nervous system as well as how to activate the vagal nerve is Why Isn’t My Brain Working? by Dr Datis Kharrazian.
It’s easy to hum in the car on the drive home and of course singing helps as long as no one catches you as in my case it’s probably more of a stress creator than relax. Recently I have been getting really into using a quite cheap tool if you are selective as to what you buy and after brushing my teeth using an electric tooth brush but turned upside down on the smooth part, held right to the back of your to sustain a stimulation of the gag reflex.
Sounds awful maybe? I find it quite easy. If your toothbrush also has a massage setting (when thought of that?) then it is even more beneficial to stimulate the vagal nerve. If you place the toothbrush on the back of your tongue and you gag that’s a positive if you don’t you need more work strengthen that gag reflex and the stimulation from the vibrations emanating from the toothbrush will help, been holding it there for 10 seconds at a time or longer if you can will help this.
Another tool I use which you can keep a check of on your own but I use a professional version when working face to face with clients is heart rate variability. I am advocate of the HeartMath system but simple apps such as HRV4Training used on your phone such as also work to help train the link between your thoughts, heart rate and stress management.
You can spend as little as 60 seconds each day using the app to focus on your deep breathing and rate your emotions, stress of the day, sleep, exercise, how hard the exercise, type of exercises, and your overall wellbeing and it will keep track of progress providing you with a personalised daily score.
So there are many tools you can use to reduce your stress, from exercise to diet and supplementation and also some very specific ones to directly impact the recovery side of stress and in turn help brain function, energy levels, enhance digestion and strengthen your immunity.