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Hacking your body’s nervous system for stress relief

UPDATED: Sun., July 4, 2021

 (Pixabay)
(Pixabay)

It is incredible how much our nervous system can influence how we feel and act in our everyday lives. Depending on the situation, this can be both a good and a bad thing. That is why the nervous system is an important aspect of our bodies to understand, because when we do we can better correct it when it goes a bit haywire in the face of all those lovely, existential stressors of modern living.

Most everyone is familiar with the body’s “fight-or-flight” mode. It activates in response to a sudden and stressful situation or danger, telling the body’s sympathetic nervous system to raise our blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate in order to prime the body for the quickest reaction possible to the perceived threat.

Obviously, this is crucial for survival. Where it is not as advantageous is in modern society where our perceived threats aren’t just large predators, but instead include all the existential worries we carry with us through the day about finances, current events, work and what have you. Those things aren’t as easy to run away from.

Once a person escapes a threat or stressor, the body should return to its prearousal state after about 20 to 60 minutes, as the parasympathetic nervous system will begin to take back over. If you constantly feel like stress is looming over you, it is a lot harder to return to that relaxed state.

This is why it is important to understand not only the famous fight-or-flight response, but what happens in the body afterward to resume our normal, healthy functioning and conserve our energy.

The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of what is commonly referred to as “rest and digest” or “breed and feed.” Its job is to undo everything that the fight-or-flight response just activated so the breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure and hormone secretions can return to normal.

Despite the parasympathetic nervous system being responsible for automatic functions that we can’t control, we can do things to encourage it to activate. One of the most approachable is to stimulate the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the longest in the autonomic nervous system, running from the brain all the way to the abdomen and branching into various key organs. It is primarily in charge of controlling the parasympathetic functions of the heart, lungs and digestive tract.

If you stimulate it, it can actually create a calming effect throughout the body which can help lessen symptoms related to stress and anxiety. What’s even better is that it is a lot simpler than you might imagine.

Exposing yourself to cold, be it through a cold shower, dunking your face in cold water or going outside in shorts in the wintertime, can help stimulate the vagus nerve. You can also self-massage the vagus nerve by massaging up and down your neck and behind your ears into your hairline. You can also focus on the area directly behind your ears and rub up and down.

Because the vagus nerve runs through the neck, you can stimulate it orally by gargling, singing, chewing gum or sucking on hard candy. All the more reason to belt out your favorite song when you’re feeling stressed.

Various studies have shown that a diet rich in probiotics can also stimulate the vagus nerve. This is facilitated by the vagus nerve’s connection to the gut, which serves as a primary link in what is referred to as the brain-gut axis.

All this goes to show that stress and anxiety are not just emotional experiences, but physical experiences as well, which luckily gives us some tactile and simple ways to help calm a nervous system that is stuck on overdrive.

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