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March Madness: How To Calm Stress and Anxiety In Five Minutes

Stress and anxiety have been deemed as the silent killer. Even with the knowledge of the many detrimental effects stress and anxiety can have on our well-being, it doesn’t change the fact that we are constantly being bombarded with stressor after stressor. While the pandemic has not helped by any means, even prior to a year ago the amount of stress and pressure we tend to put on ourselves seems to be at an all-time high. Even if we possess the ability to take a step back from some stressors, it’s almost as though we feel like we are doing something wrong if we have even a moment to relax. It’s almost as if being busy is the latest and greatest status symbol. The question then becomes what do we do about this dynamic? Let’s say we make the conscious choice to eliminate some unnecessary stressors within our lives. Great except what about the many external stressors we are inundated with that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon? How then do we keep ourselves sane and healthy despite those things? Before we jump into that, let’s take a brief look at two of the main internal systems that are responsible for dealing with stress in our bodies...the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. A Little Bit About These Systems Many people have heard of the central nervous system which is comprised of your brain and spinal cord. Within that main system, we also have the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Each of these systems are responsible for tending to certain duties within our bodies to keep it going at an optimal level. You may have heard the sympathetic nervous system referred to as your fight, flight, or freeze system. Basically, this system comes online anytime your body senses a potential threat. The parasympathetic system on the other hand is what is responsible for calming the body and reducing arousal after that perceived threat is eliminated. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system can be thought of as the gas on a car and the parasympathetic nervous system can be thought of as the brake on the car. These two systems are meant to work together to maintain the status quo in our bodies. The problem is when we are faced with constant stress or trauma, it’s like the brake pedal is disabled and the gas pedal is pushed down full force. When we are in that state, our body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol which overtime can wreak havoc on our bodies. So how do we get out of this cycle and get back to homeostasis? Enter the Vagus Nerve! 
The vagus nerve stretches all the way from the brain, into every organ of the body, and down into the colon. Think of it as an information super highway. When this nerve is stimulated, it allows that parasympathetic nervous system to come back online and start to signal to our bodies that we are safe and no longer in danger aka we can begin to calm down! The great thing about knowing this is we then have the power to bring ourselves from being super worked up to feeling calm and collected all within a relatively short amount of time. Self-Awareness + Action = Results Before we jump into how we can stimulate the vagus nerve, let’s talk about self-awareness for a moment. While having a list of coping mechanisms is useful, if we don’t even realize how we’re feeling then that list doesn’t get utilized and we remain stuck in the cycle of stress and anxiety. So how do we develop self-awareness? A great practice is to do a check-in with yourself at the beginning and end of every day. No need to spend too much time on this but at the very least setting the intention that for five minutes when you wake up and five minutes in the evening, you are going to do a self-check-in. Once you have your designated check-in time planned, figuring out what method works best for you to bring that awareness inwards is the next step. For some people, that involves starting their morning by lying still and scanning their body for any tension, tightness, or other physical sensations that may be present. If you do this, try and not judge the sensation or assign it a value, just notice it. Then afterwards maybe jot it down or make a mental note of it. At the end of the day, some people find it useful to do another body scan and repeat that process. Another great tip is to think back to how you felt throughout the day and get in the habit of knowing what those potential triggers of stress are for you. Doing this after the fact is often a necessary starting point since being self-aware in the moment when faced with stress and anxiety can be a difficult skill to master. Once you have established this self-awareness practice, then you can begin integrating a variety of vagus nerve stimulation techniques. Here are five things you can try for five minutes or less that have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve: 1. Deep Breathing Try to be intentional with this breathing, specifically in a way that allows your exhale to be a bit longer than your inhale. A favorite of mine is the 5-5-7 breath. Inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale for 7. 2. Cold Showers Submerging the body in cold temperatures has been shown to suppress the sympathetic nervous system which then allows for that parasympathetic nervous system to come back online. Start with 15-30 seconds and work up from there. 3. Gargle water/humming/singing Think of these types of actions as a workout for your vagus nerve. This type of noise and vibration within the throat directly stimulates your vagus nerve which in turn is giving it a workout. Overtime that helps to tone it, just like physical workouts tone your muscles. This of course allows your muscles have optimal functioning and the same goes for the vagus nerve. 4. Exercise Exercising is great for so many aspects of your health and stimulating the vagus nerve is no exception. Even low impact movement like walking can be beneficial and if you can make this happen while being in nature, even better! 5. Connection with Others When we are around other safe and supportive people, it allows us to feel relaxed. Extra bonus if while you’re connecting with others, there is consensual physical affection involved! As always, progress over perfection. See if you can try even once this week to implement a self-awareness practice and then try out one or a few of these vagus nerve stimulation techniques. Everyone is different so see what works best for you and then stick with it. Over time you can then move from feeling hopeless and helpless to grounded and empowered.