Imagine….a long day doing what you do all day. Feeling increasingly drained as the day inches closer to an end. All that is getting you through this torturous day is the visualization of you at home, slumped on the couch wearing your coziest sweatpants, eating a snack, with the TV remote in hand. This is relaxation at its greatest! Or is it? I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but your go to, favourite mode of “relaxing” may not actually be relaxing you at all. Much of what we consider relaxing is actually just distracting. I’m not saying a little distraction is a bad thing, but if we aren’t nurturing ourselves with true relaxation every day than our brain and body will suffer consequences. Do not fear! There is a solution!
Our autonomic nervous system consists of two branches:
• Branch #1 is called the sympathetic nervous system. This is what prepares us for action; it gets us ready to fight or flight from threat (which in today’s world can be a physical or emotional threat….including fear and stress (Yes, this includes stress we experience throughout our day-to-day life).
• Branch #2 is the parasympathetic nervous system. This is what can deactivate the fight/flight response and active a relaxation response. The vagus nerve is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It connects our brain to our belly and influences our relaxation response in a huge way.
So, how do we combat the activation of our sympathetic nervous system and the fight/flight mode that sends our minds and bodies into hyper-vigilance? Most of us spend enough of our waking life under stress. We are very good at activating our stress response. But, in order to live a full, healthy, and long life, we need to learn how to turn that switch off and turn on the relaxation switch. That switch is the vagus nerve.
So, going back to our long-awaited night on the couch, flipping channels and sampling snacks….contrary to popular thought, relaxation does not mean watching TV. Nor does relaxation necessarily mean reading or talking or even doing nothing at all. Often we confuse distracting ourselves with relaxing ourselves. Yes, those lovely distractions feel like they are helping because we can temporarily ignore our stress, but they likely are not inducing true relaxation.
When the vagus nerve is activated, a very powerful chemical called acetylcholine is released throughout the body. This chemical nurtures and pacifies the stress response, so that the body and brain can begin naturally healing itself from the daily stress it endured.
So how do we heal ourselves from the damage of daily stress? If it’s not the magic of TV then what?!
The vagus nerve can be turned on simply by choosing to focus on slow, deep, breathing. Almost as simple as making a snack, putting on sweatpants and turning on the TV.
3-6 breathing (or 4-8 if you are a larger lunged person) is a beautiful thing that can be done any time at any place.
Inhale, through your nose, for 3 seconds, filling your belly with oxygen (it may take practice to get your body used to breathing into your belly rather than chest…be patient with yourself while you practice). Imagine a balloon being blown up inside your belly.
Exhale slowly, through your mouth, for 6 seconds. Feel, and even watch, your balloon slowly deflate.
Repeat this breathing, while counting 1-2-3…..1-2-3-4-5-6. You will notice an almost immediate change in your state. Keep breathing for as many breaths as you feel comfortable or for as long as you would like to experiment with the breath.
Wait! There’s More!
Not only can focused breathing to activating the vagus nerve relax us, but it will also:
• Help with digestion and absorption of nutrients
• Improve short-term memory
• Counter inflammation, which may lead to disease
• Lower blood pressure and heart rate
• Improve management of anxiety and depression
• Boosts immune system
• Repair brain tissue
• Oxygen produces endorphins (weeeeee!!)