In my 20+ years of clinical practice, I have guided clients through many things including panic attacks. However, on April 16, 2020, my clinical capacity took a different turn as I experienced my very own panic attack. It was six weeks after we shut down for the pandemic, all four of my children, two dogs and husband were at home and the group practice I worked at had not missed a beat in providing services to our clients through telehealth. Although outwardly I was highly functional, my nervous system was on overload. To reference one of my favorite books, The Body Keeps the Score, my body wanted to let me know to take a beat, slow down and ground. My panic attack was my body's way of trying to “safe” itself by making me pause and work its way back to a regulated state.
As human beings, we are wired for survival and connection (more on connection next month). We have a natural stress response within our body, our autonomic nervous system (ANS), that plays a valuable role in keeping us safe. When we feel safe, we can be present, mindful and clear. This clarity not only tells us we are OK, it allows us to move from survival mode to explore opportunities to thrive with meaning and purpose. When we feel “unsafe” due to circumstances that are threatening or feel out of control, our ANS conserves energy by shutting down some of the day to day functioning so we can direct that energy to basic survival needs of breathing and heart pumping. Quite fascinating, don't you think?
This is where understanding the vagus nerve, our largest nerve, comes in. The vagus nerve is a bi-directional “wandering nerve” that sends messages to and from the brain to help calm the nervous system after a stressful situation. The more “toned” our vagus nerve is, the more we can manage and/or recover from stressful situations. The more activated and stressed the vagus nerve is, the more heightened we are physically and psychologically.
In keeping with this month's theme of the mind-body connection with focus on the Polyvagal Theory and the vagus nerve, here are a few ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone.
Exercise - Move your body to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone through any form of exercise - cardio, yoga, dance, shake.
Cold Exposure - Expose yourself to cold on a regular basis to lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase vagal tone. Try adding 30 seconds of cold water to your shower then work your way up or invest in a relatively inexpensive cold plunge. Click here for the one I use.
Deep Conscious Breathing - Try to breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow and a double count to your inhale (i.e. inhale 1, exhale 2).
Singing, Humming, and Gargling - The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.
Laughing - Similar to the above, laughter has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve your mood.
Connecting with others - Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone.
Be Healthy Within Blog
Hi, I'm Carolyn a clinical counselor, art therapist, health coach and mother of four. I am dedicated to promoting mental health awareness, fostering growth mindset and developing connections to self and others. I believe healthy living starts with the individual, which creates a ripple effect for others.