The vagus nerve, from the latin term for wanderer, is the longest nerve in the body and is in control of most of our internal organs as it wanders from the brain to the colon. One of its primary roles beyond being a highway of nerve signals to and from the brain to control digestion and breathing is it’s profound effect on relaxing the body. Most of us are familiar with the ‘flight or fight’ response – you know, running from the proverbial saber tooth tiger – When we are stressed, we shut down digestion, we take shallower breaths, increase our heart rate, etc. The vagus nerve is responsible for the OPPOSITE effect – the ‘rest and digest’ function of the nervous system. When we stimulate the vagus nerve with deep, calm breaths, we slow the heart, we increase blood flow to the digestive organs, we chill out.
Our current world does not support this calming side of the nervous system – it’s all stress and go, go. go — but you have more control than you think. Beyond meditation, mindfulness and breath work you can take just a couple of minutes a day to give your vagus nerve a ‘workout’ – helping it to function better and move you more to the ‘rest and digest’ end of the spectrum. Here’s how:
1. Laying on your back (or sitting, leaning back in your chair): Place your hands behind your head at the base of your skull. Keeping your face looking up at the ceiling, look with your eyes all the way to the right (without straining). Hold your gaze while breathing gently until you take a deep breath/yawn/sigh. Repeat with your eyes to the left.
2. Sitting upright: Gently bring your right ear towards your right shoulder. Move your gaze up to the ceiling and hold until you take a deep breath/yawn/sigh. Repeat with your left ear to your left shoulder.
3. Standing: Hold your elbows. Rotate your torso to the left and right 5 times. Bring your elbows up to shoulder height, rotate your torso left and right 5 times. Raise your arms above your head, rotate your torso left and right 5 times.
Seems silly, seems simple, but just try it. It takes very little time and when done daily for a week or so, you’ll start seeing the difference. It can be helpful even if you only do it when you feel tense or anxious, it will help reset your stress response – print this out, put it on your desk and give it a try the next time you have a conference call with your boss.