Stress is a fact of life. But it doesn’t have to be unproductive and negative. It can be used as a motivating force that will help you grow, develop and achieve your goals in the long term. Stress changes how we think and behave: it makes us take risks, push harder for our goals, find creativity in adversity and use everything at our disposal to get what we want out of life. So don’t fear stress; embrace it! A healthy vagus nerve also called the cranial nerve X is at the heart of this. It helps you to regulate stress and negative emotions, helping you feel calm and content. The good news is that it can be strengthened as a natural way to boost your mood, relax more deeply and sleep better. And new research shows that one simple exercise for this powerful cranial nerve may have exceptional benefits for reframing your thoughts on stress in just a matter of weeks.
The cranial nerve X regulates internal organ activities such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as vasomotor activity and some reflex actions such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting. It also carries sensory information from the thorax and abdomen, as well as a few taste sensations. It’s a common body part to be referenced in many pieces of literature and is oftentimes used when describing someone with a “sick” or weak stomach, meaning they have difficulty digesting food efficiently.
The secret to improving your vagal tone is to take full advantage of this natural state whenever you find yourself in it. This may be through physical activity, exercise, relaxation techniques, or mindfulness practice. The more you can ‘dip into’ these states of calm and positive emotions, the better your quality of life will become.
1. Breathe breath awareness meditation
Sit in a quiet place, but somewhere that you won’t be disturbed. Bring your attention to the sensations of breathing for 10-15 mins — really notice the air coming into your lungs and out again (you can use this time to thoughts about what needs doing etc)
2. Strategic thinking
Use your right brain hemisphere for creativity, problem-solving, and empathy; use your left hemisphere for language, logical thinking, and arithmetic. Our thoughts are often very similar to each other; it may be helpful to change up who is in control every now and then!
3. Stairway breaths
Stand with both feet flat on the floor. Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your belly, so you can feel your breath move up and down. Breathe in slowly through the nose for 3 beats, breathing deep into your diaphragm (lowers). Hold 1 beat. Now breathe out slowly through the nose for 3 beats, pushing all that air out of your lungs into your diaphragm (rises) Hold 1 beat. Repeat this sequence until you’re feeling relaxed. This should take around 5 minutes
4. Tree yoga pose
Place both hands firmly on a wall about hip height or higher to keep balance as if under a tree trunk to make sure you are grounded there is no swaying back and forward. Take a big inhale and raise both arms to the sky, as you exhale whilst bending your knees deeply and slowly until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Keep your arms up and breathe in and out for 5 minutes or so.
5. Breathe awareness meditation
Now sit down and focus on the breath to bring yourself into a state of mindfulness. Keep focused on each breath entering your body, noticing how it fills you up slowly breathing in 3-4 beats before slowly breathing out for 3-4 breaths minimum. Repeat this technique until you feel calm throughout your whole body, enjoying its newfound relaxedness! This should take around 10-15 minutes.
The Cranial Nerve X has been assigned to all vasomotor activity i.e. controlling your respiratory rate which is why when you feel stressed out it can become more difficult to breathe properly due to shallow or irregular breathing patterns. Due to this association with stress, you may laugh a bit when thinking about the nerve’s name because it almost sounds like a party going on inside 🙂
In certain cases of depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc… The Cranial Nerve X becomes too sensitive and overreacts when confronted with stressful situations. This loads and unloads neurotransmitters rapidly, causing the heart to race and breathing to increase. There are also cases of stress causing physical pain in your stomach region since your body’s natural response is that of protecting itself from harm.
Trying meditative techniques such as the ones mentioned earlier can help to stimulate this nerve which will lead to better digestion, improved respiratory functions, general feeling of calmness, positive moods, etc… If you’re interested in how this works on a physiological level, there are many studies out there that explain it in detail.
The bottom line is to try practicing these techniques whenever possible (daily or every other day if you wish), take control over your thoughts instead of letting random chaotic events make you stressed out. Minding yourself with a new sense of calmness is good but doing something good for your body will only help you become an even more resilient version of yourself!