Last week, in my compassion group therapy session, we looked at the vagus nerve and its effect on our health and wellbeing. The vagus nerve is the longest of our cranial nerves (the ones which emerge straight from our brain) and controls our inner nerve centre. It oversees a range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to each organ of our body (our heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen).
The vagus nerve is critical to our overall health and it has been scientifically proven that stimulating this important bundle of motor and sensory fibres is a key in reducing our stress, anxiety and anger levels.
So, enough of the science lesson, what are the practical ways that we can get this thing working to our advantage? Here are a range of different ways:
breathe deeply and slowly
Slow and deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve in a way that can help reduce our heart rate and enable us to become more relaxed. That’s why focusing on your breath during mini meditations can be so soothing for us and is a key part of compassion based therapy.
Regular exercise such as a gentle walk stimulates gut flow which is regulated by your vagus nerve. Why not combine this with getting in touch with nature so you can enjoy some peace and quiet at the same time?
have a good laugh
There’s a reason behind the popular saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Proper belly laughs are thought to be great for stimulating the vagus nerve. Why not try going to a comedy show or watching an episode of your favourite funny TV series tonight? There’s even a thing called ‘laughter therapy’ according to a counsellor I used to see, although I’ve never tried it myself!
try getting yourself all cold!
Apparently any type of exposure to cold will increase vagus nerve activation. That’s why some people swear by having a cold shower first thing in the morning to get going! Personally I prefer a little cold water on my face or a nice cold glass of water to wake myself up but it’s entirely up to you how you expose yourself to a little bit of coldness!
Sing or chant
As a member of a choir, I love singing and find it really helps my wellbeing. Now I know why! Why not trying putting on your favourite music and singing along (and maybe do a little boogie as well for the exercise) to activate your vagus nerve? Chanting also works too so no wonder football fans feel so good when they shout for their team at matches.
A nice neck massage is a lovely way to stimulate the vagus nerve or why not try a foot massage to help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. I love it when my husband does a firm massage of my feet after a long day when we’re sat together watching TV. If you haven’t got an obliging partner, a session with a qualified masseuse makes a fantastic pampering treat if you can afford it.
Positive social contact
Being socially connected, be it with compassionate friends, family or even our beloved pets has been shown to help with emotional regulation though vagal stimulation. Make sure that you choose to spend time with kind hearted and thoughtful people to ensure a positive experience.
Reduce your consumption of junk food
I’m sure you already know that eating too much fatty stuff is bad for you but excess consumption of ‘junk food’ has been shown to reduce the sensitivity of your vagus nerve. The occasional treat is okay but try not to indulge too often.
Yoga and Tai Chi
The benefits of practises such as yoga and Tai Chi are well documented. They have both been shown to increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic (also known as rest and digest) system in general. You can find many simple yoga sequences online and beginner classes of exercises are widely available if you want to make it a social event too.
And finally, try to make time to relax each and every day
It’s up to you what form that relaxation takes, a nice warm bath, a few uninterrupted chapters of your favourite novel, craft or art activities or settling down to watch a film. Find something relaxing to do each day will have a positive effect on your wellbeing by working your vagus nerve.
I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting and have learnt something new. Let me know if you try any of the ideas and if they have a positive effect on your wellbeing as a result. I’ve learnt so much from my compassion group therapy so far and I’ve have been working hard to put things into practise to improve my wellbeing. Hopefully I get the chance to share some more with you soon.
Until next time, look after yourself.