The long and winding vagus, that leads to your brain.
Thanks for the Fab Four for that one.
The what? Er, possibly sounds a little offensive in this day and age. Well, this nerve in our bodies is rather important to our wellbeing both physically and psychologically.
The Latin word “vagus” translates to “wandering” in English. This nerve, which has two branches, wanders from the back of the brain and down the sides of our neck and spine. It has limbs that go into our ears and throat (more about this later) then into our key organs such as the stomach, liver, heart and lungs.
What makes this nerve so unique and important?
Well, our sympathetic nervous system, amongst other activities, manages our fight, flight or freeze response, which leads to changes in heart rate, breathing and vision. Hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and insulin also flood our body to get it ready for eventualities. All this is a lasting legacy from our evolutionary past in the face of danger or threat – it stopped us being eaten by wild animals.
Our parasympathetic nervous system, in contrast, is the one which helps us rest, reset and digest. It regulates our key organs to control heart rate, digestion and hormone release, leading to sensations of stability, calm and peace.
How is knowing about this relevant and useful in this day and age? Well, despite thousands of years of brain evolution, we still cannot shake off our fight, flight or freeze responses which can be triggered by our personal or work lives. Even now, they still manage to regularly rear their ugly heads in the form of emotions such as anxiety and anger caused by stress. If left alone, depression can also set in.
Well it feels intuitive to say that rest, reset and digest is a perfect counterbalance to all that fight, flight and freeze stuff. What the world does to us, our bodies offset. Increasing amounts of research in this area indicate that stimulation of the vagus nerve can indeed reduce levels of stress-related hormones, anxiety and possibly depression. It can also enhance that most wondrous of things – good sleep.
Now to the valuable bit – how can we do this? Short of having an implant which does it automatically, deep breathing, yogic stretches (if you are into it), laughter (which sends signals of positivity back to the brain via the diaphragm) and eating probiotics seem to work. As the nerve also reaches into our ears and throat, humming, chewing and singing helps. Perhaps surprisingly, neck and earlobe massage is effective and there are plenty of online videos that guide you on how to do this. And yes, they really do work!
Another proven technique is cold water immersion or showers. If that provides too scary (and we don’t want to do anything that may cause anxiety, do we?) regularly washing one’s face in cold water is a start. This can have an amazing effect.
Why not try some of these and note the effects they have on you? Start with a hum and a laugh, though not at the same time.