I keep going on and on about breathing and how it can help you calm down and be more settled. How can such a simple tip even work? What is the biological explanation behind it? The answer is the vagus nerve.
First, let me remind you of the “fight-or-fight” (or freeze) response that is triggered by what is called the sympathetic nervous system. It gets you ready to act and fight. Your heart rate increases, you get a boost of adrenaline and cortisol, and non-essential bodily functions are reduced (explaining butterflies in stomach and tingling of skin).
We have an opposite system called the parasympathetic nervous system (a bit of a mouthful). This is responsible for the “relaxation response”. It reduces stress, anxiety, anger, inflammation and helps all your bodily functions return to normal. To simplify, the sympathetic system is your accelerator, the parasympathetic system puts on the brakes. In everyday life, both systems balance each other out so you can live a harmonious life.
The vagus nerve interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. By stimulating it, you give your body the signal to relax.
While consciously controlling your heart and digestive system is difficult, you can very easily override your breathing pattern. In 2010, a study has confirmed that slow abdominal breathing reduced the “fight-or-flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system and could enhance vagal activity (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20954960). During slow diaphragmatic breathing, visualise filling up the lower part of your lungs just above your belly button like a balloon…and then exhaling slowly. This is going to stimulate your vagus nerve and therefore activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
There are other ways to stimulate the vagal nerve. An ancient one is singing or humming. This is why “Om” chanting helps people when meditating. This also explains why some people tend to instinctively hum or sing to themselves when they get nervous. Also, ever had that impulse to just scream or shout when things get too much? It would actually help. Just scream in a pillow if you don’t want to disrupt or worry your neighbours.
Another surprisingly simple tip is to put your thumb in your mouth and blow on it. For maximum effect, take a deep breath for a seven seconds(ish), hold it for three and blow on your thumb for seven (and then repeat if necessary). The increased pressure will also stimulate the vagus nerve and reduce your stress level.
A final tip to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is cold exposure. Cold shower for the brave, or simply splashing cold water on your face.
So next time you feel tense and anxious, just remember: stay cool and take a breather.