The Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is one of the major neural pathways activated by stress. In situations that are often associated with chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – fight or flight response) can be continuously activated without the normal counteraction of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS – rest and digest).
The fight or flight response involves the SNS changing activity in the body to help prepare for a perceived threat. This includes: inhibition of the digestive and immune systems, increases in pupil size and heart rate, expansion of the lungs, and the release of epinephrine/norepinephrine.
To facilitate the rest and digest response, the PNS alters a number of functions in the body to help it recover. These functions are largely mirror opposites of SNS activation. These include: stimulation of the digestive and immune systems, decreases in pupil size and heart rate, and contraction of the lungs. These processes optimise functions in the body at rest. This also allows it to focus on maintenance.
The Vagus nerve
Vagus means “wandering” in Latin. The vagus nerve is known as the “wandering nerve”. This is because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem. These stems wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way. As the vagus nerve is playing a major role at the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, there are easy ways that people can tune in to their nervous systems. This will allow for you to find ways back to a “rest and digest” state amidst the chronic stress.
In the polyvagal theory, the ventral vagal network runs upward from the diaphragm area to the brain stem before crossing over nerves in the lungs, neck, throat, and eyes. Actions involving these parts of the body including deep breaths, gargling, humming, or even social cues like smiling or making eye contact with someone, send messages to the brain that it’s okay to relax.
How to assist with Fight or Flight?
How you can increase vagal tone naturally?
- Slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve to reduce stress and anxiety
- Humming, singing songs or repeating mantras or just the word “OM” because the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords.
- Washing the face with cold water activates cholinergic neurons through the vagus nerve
- Yoga and meditation increase vagal tone and positive emotions
- Improve social connections, which boosts positive emotions and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself
- Laugh more because it increases heart rate variability and mood, which influence the vagus nerve
- Massage can increase vagal activity and vagal tone
- Exercises stimulates the vagus nerve
Ask your Physiotherapist for specific treatments to stimulate the vagus nerve, like acupuncture and safe and sound protocol. Visit our services page to find out more on Acupuncture.