Is there any way to describe the last few years as anything other than stressful?
It’s been a lot for all of us to absorb, and that can take a toll on our minds, body and health.
In this week’s blog, we’re exploring the first pillar in Paul Chek’s recipe for health: Happiness.
While reducing our stress doesn’t automatically equal happiness, it can certainly go a long way to clearing our minds, and feeling more grounded and steady in pursuing the goals we set for the year. It also can help stimulate our vagus nerve, which helps regulate digestion, breathing, heart rate, and your stress response. A healthy mind is a healthy body.
What is the vagus nerve?
Ok let’s take a step back. The vagus system is made up of two nerves that extend from your brain, all the way to your gut, passing through your heart, lungs and intestinal organs. Besides the fact that the vagus nerves help control things like digestion, heart rate, sweating, speech, taste, breathing, mood regulation and more, they’re also incredibly important in helping you get back to a state of calm after a stressful event. The scientific technical term is called ‘regulating the nervous system’.
If it becomes damaged (in instances, say, of chronic stress), then things that stress you out can have an even bigger impact (Vagal tone). And when that happens, we need to stimulate the vagus nerves to get things back on track.
So what is stress?
We’ve all felt it at some point or another, but stress is essentially your body’s way of reacting to something it sees as a demand or threat. When this happens, the body's response is to go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which is its way of protecting you. This can feel like a shortness of breath, headaches, loss of appetite, digestion issues, high blood pressure or even a lack of focus and concentration (ever heard of stress paralysis?). If experienced chronically, it can lead to lack of sleep, panic attacks, or anxiety.
How do we stimulate the vagus nerve and mitigate stress?
There are a few paths you can choose, here are a few we’ve found to be beneficial to help stimulate the vagus system and improve overall health:
Breathing exercises: In The Relaxation Response by Dr Herbet Benson, he outlines deep breathing techniques to help your body release chemicals that slow down your breathing and heart rate. Through deep belly breathing and slow breaths out, you’re unable to have a panic attack, and it’s impossible to be hyper-aroused. Try breathing in for four seconds, then slowing breathing out for longer than four seconds. Or, you can try the box method: Breathe in for three, hold for three, out for three, hold for three and repeat.
Watch: Box Breathing Technique
Get out in nature: Getting out into nature can have an incredibly positive effect in reducing stress. By using some grounding techniques and having bodily contact with nature - like walking barefoot in grass or going for an ocean dip - it can help reduce your cortisol levels, which can leave you feeling less stressed and anxious.
Watch: Vagus Nerve myofascial self-massage
Take time to massage: Heading to a masseuse is great, but there are some exercises you can do on yourself at home that can help relieve physical tension, lower your heart rate and increase relaxation. Foam rollers, pilates balls and even yoga bolsters are great things to have at home gently roll and stretch your body first thing in the morning and at the end of a long day. You can also try some lymphatic drainage massage techniques on your face and body to help improve circulation and immune function, and relieve stress overall.
Watch: Learn more about polyvagal theory
Watch: Dr. Perry Nickelston’s The big 6 of lymphatic drainage
Get moving: We’ve all heard that exercise and movement releases endorphins, but what does that mean? Basically, endorphins work to relieve pain, reduce stress and improve your sense of well-being. So find some kind of movement you love that will get you going and the blood pumping. Even walking is especially beneficial!
Eating the right kind of food: Who doesn’t want to go to town on a family-size block of milk chocolate when we’re feeling stressed and anxious? Great as it feels in the short-term, in the long-term we’re not doing ourselves any favours. In fact, there are some food that can help relieve stress, including salmon, berries, chamomile tea, avocado and leafy greens. But the best one? Dark chocolate.
Sleeping: Not always so easy if you’re feeling stressed and anxious, but proper sleep can help restore and rejuvenate the body and mind, improve concentration, regulate your mood, and help you be a better decision maker. Try reading before bed instead of watching TV, or practice a few minutes of deep breathing whilst lying on your back to slow your heart rate to ease your self into a good night’s sleep.
Setting boundaries: Saying no and making decisions for yourself instead of others is hard, but by setting some boundaries is ultimately for the best. Too tired to go out for dinner? That’s ok, don’t go because you feel like you have to. Listen to your body and mind, and put yourself and your health first. If conflicted, ask yourself, “Why am I putting someone else’s comfort before my own?”
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