This is the second part of the August 911 series because, well, it’s still August and you’re probably still feeling overwhelmed and stressed with all the back-to-school business. Last week, I broke down why it’s so important to manage your stress during times like these instead of waiting for things to die down. I know one of the biggest barriers to this is feeling like you just don’t have time. So today, I want to share three ways you can get out of “fight or flight” in just a few minutes. That way you can reset then get back to what needs to be done in a much more centered state.
Let’s just jump in, so I can make this article as short and helpful as possible. When you’re in “fight or flight”, you cannot think your way out of it. And when you’re in “fight or flight”, your decisions, creativity, positivity, and relationships are negatively impacted. Again, that’s why it’s so important to do something NOW when you’re caught in that stress response, instead of waiting until you have time. In a nutshell, your nervous system has two states, sympathetic or “flight or flight” and parasympathetic also known as “rest and digest”. Now if your life is actually in danger, like a parent is so frustrated about how long move in is taking they drive their car into the side of the building, you WANT your sympathetic nervous system to be in control. But most situations aren’t life and death, even though they might be interpreted and feel that way. When that happens, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to take over and get you out of that “fight or flight” state.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic switch you can flip. But what you can do is stimulate your vagus nerve. What’s the vagus nerve, you ask? Good question. The vagus nerve is huge nerve in your body and it’s the main component of your parasympathetic nervous system. It allows your brain to communicate with your heart, lungs, and digestive system, amongst other things. When you’re in “fight or flight” – again that sympathetic state – your breath quickens, your heart starts to race, and your digestion can get messed up in a variety of ways.
I don’t want to spend a ton of time going into the mechanics of the vagus nerve itself. There are tons of videos and articles about it if you want more information. What I want to focus on is its job as communicator. When your sympathetic nervous system is in control, your heart races and you breathe quickly because you need to get your BLEEP in gear! Your brain won’t slow those things down until it believes, “Hey, things are cool now. We can chill.” Again, this is all a physiological response, so you can’t just tell yourself that. There needs to be a physiological change for your nervous system to shift into the parasympathetic state. And you can use the three exercises I’m going to run through now, to do just that. None of them take more than a few minutes. And when you do them, you stimulate your vagus nerve. And it will let your brain know the threat is over and you can chill. And I just want to add, that doesn’t mean all the things on your plate will disappear, but your ability to navigate them effectively will increase dramatically.
The first one is the physiological sigh. Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford School of Medicine, says this is the quickest way to reset your nervous system. He has his own podcast, Huberman Lab where he breaks down topics based on the latest science, including an entire episode on stress and anxiety. But his episodes are usually over two hours long. So, I want to focus on this one exercise here. How do you do a physiological sigh? It’s super simple. It’s just two inhales, with the first inhale being a tad longer than the second, followed by a long exhale.
Most vagus nerve stimulation exercises involve breathing. In a nutshell, when you’re in “fight or flight” you breathe quickly from your chest. It’s typically a shallow type of breathing where your inhales are longer than your exhales. This is how your body gets more oxygen in quickly, so you can move quickly. When you want to signal to your brain to slow down, you switch this pattern. You breathe from your diaphragm instead of your chest and your exhales should be longer than your inhales. In the physiological sigh, the double inhale helps open your lungs so that when you exhale, you get rid of more carbon dioxide. But even though you’re inhaling twice, your exhale should still be longer than both combined. You can do the physiological sigh once or up to four times to help your system reset. (Get more details about the physiological sigh HERE.)
The next two exercises I got from Lucas Rockwood’s YOGABODY YouTube channel. Let’s start with the Modified Valsalva Maneuver. This is something EMTs often use with folks who have an elevated heart rate. It also doesn’t take much time, but it does require laying down with your legs propped up. So, you’ll need to find somewhere you can do that. To do this maneuver, take a deep inhale. Then close your nose and mouth and push out but don’t exhale. Hold it for 15 seconds. Then breathe out through your nose and elevate your legs to 45 degrees and relax. You can do this up to four times as well. The reason this works is it increases then decreases your intrathoracic and intra-abdominal pressure, which stimulates the vagus nerve.
The last exercise is cold therapy. Your vagus nerve runs from your brain down each side of your throat, and down all the way to your digestive organs. To stimulate your vagus nerve with cold therapy, you can do one of two things. You can simply splash cold water on your face, cheeks, and sides of your neck. Or to be even more effective, Lucas suggests using a cold compress. If you have a fridge in your office, you can keep one there. You’ll just take that compress and hold it to the side of your neck for 15 seconds and then alternate sides. You can wrap the compress in a towel if it’s frozen, so you don’t burn your neck from the cold. This will stimulate the vagus nerve and shift you out of that “fight or flight” or sympathetic state. (Get more details about the Modified Valsalva Maneuver and Cold Therapy HERE.)
Those are just a few quick ways reboot your nervous system and put you in a better frame of mind – and body – to navigate all the things you have to do. Remember when you’re stuck in “fight or flight” you react to situations. But when you’re in “rest and digest” and your parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, you can respond. So, it’s the difference between reacting and responding, which almost always gets you better results. There are plenty of other exercises as well. You can just Google or search YouTube for vagus nerve stimulation or vagus nerve activation, and you’ll find a plethora. But I wanted to keep this episode short and simple. August can be a chaotic and stressful time, so I hope these three exercises help you stay centered and feel less stressed. See you in September.