Ever-present pandemic stress is putting us in a constant state of high alert and, as well as causing tetchiness and anxiety now, it’s having impacts on our long-term health. But before you add that to your long list of things to freak out about, there is some good news: you can improve the way you respond to stress and feel more zen, in just a couple of days.
Enter the vagus nerve, which starts in the core of the brain, goes all the way into the gut and is known as the care-taking nerve of the body. It’s constantly assessing the safety of any given situation, the mood of the people around you, and helps shape how stressed you feel.
“It’s the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our ‘rest and digest’ state,” says Dr Damian Holsinger, a Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at the University of Sydney. “When we’re stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which puts us in ‘fight or flight’ mode. If we can activate our vagus nerve, and make sure it’s functioning optimally, it will calm everything down much quicker and keep our body safe from the biological impacts of stress.”
It was the perfect system for our hunter-gather ancestors: they relied on the cortisol flood that the sympathetic system triggered to face a threat; once the predator had gone or the buffalo had been killed, the cortisol would be fed back to the pituitary gland and the vagus nerve would kick in. Everything would slow down: the heart rate, breath and all the organs that were in a heightened state – and then they’d feast. But in COVID times, the predator feels ever-present.
“Cortisol is continually being released because your body thinks it’s in a constant state of danger, and that’s a big problem,” says Holsinger. “Elevated levels of cortisol create damage to our organs because they’re not made to be in this heightened state, and it causes massive amounts of inflammation in the system.
“You need the rest state to repair, and it’s the vagus nerve that’s responsible for getting us back into that state, but if you have your foot on the pedal continuously your vagus nerve will not kick in. That means lowered longevity, weight gain, strokes, and high blood pressure caused by elevated levels of cholesterol in the system. So to be able to activate this system properly is absolutely crucial.”
And it’s possible to train your vagus nerve to switch on faster and regulate the stress response better, by feeding it the right stimuli.
“Once you start working with the vagus nerve, it’s like a muscle: it will get out quicker and that’s when you see the sustainable change,” says Carrie Rigoni, a Perth-based chiropractor who specialises in the vagus nerve.
“At the moment, our nervous system is being wired to be in constant fight-or-flight because of the environment, and can even enter the ‘freeze’ state which is where we feel stuck and unable to make decisions."
It’s why we need to nudge our vagus nerve daily with things that signal safety to it, says Rigoni.
“As long as it’s not screen-based, that can be anything that you love, that makes you feel good and is familiar to the nervous system – start small, with daily doses of things like gardening, cooking, sewing – making time for the things that you enjoy and tells the vagus nerve you’re safe.”
As well as lunch-break activities, there are a bunch of easy ways to stimulate the vagus nerve that take less than a minute at a time.
Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to almost immediately lower cortisol levels: simply breathe into the ribcage for five seconds through the nose and 10 seconds out through the mouth to activate the vagus nerve, says Holsinger.
Other tried and true methods: cold water, whether via the ocean, 30 seconds at the end of your shower, plunging your face into a bowl of cold water for 10 seconds at a time or pressing an ice cube wrapped in a tissue onto the side of your neck on the right for seconds; gargling, to stimulate a branch of the nerve that’s found in the roof of the mouth, plus singing, humming and getting a yoga ‘om’ going.
If you’re a seasoned stress head, Rigoni says passive practices like these will help your dysregulated nervous system the most, to begin with.
Rigoni also suggests giving the vagus nerve the things it loves: social connection, with plenty of eye contact (“Try a karaoke dance party with the kids”), and simply using our gaze. “Engaging long distance vision will do wonders because we need the long distance to wind down our nervous system and we’re not getting that much while we’re cooped up in our houses. Go to the end of the driveway and look down the street or stand and look from one side of the park to the other,” she suggests. “Or when you’re stuck at your desk, try playing with the horizontal gaze: sit with your head in neutral, then move your gaze to one side and hold it there until you sigh – you may need to hold it for a while if your vagus nerve is struggling.” Commit to activating your vagus nerve here and there during the day and you should start to feel better in just a couple of days, says Rigoni. “The more you do it and the more you can sit in that state where you feel better, the longer it stays activated. In other words, don’t do the practice and then immediately check the COVID numbers.“ Or try to find that elusive same-day delivery slot for the groceries.