Guest Blog developed in collaboration with Jessica Knox, A Balanced Body.
“If my body can learn dysregulated ways of coping,
it could also learn healthy routes to recovery.”
Dr. Nicole LePera
December is here. We are at the end of another difficult year where healthcare providers and communities wrestled with the ongoing pandemic issues and staffing shortages – to name only a few of the challenges.
December is here, and so is the extra challenge of grieving during the holidays.
December is here, and the stressors which may be put aside in the summer may hit us in the face in the isolation of our homes on the shorter and colder days.
Whether it is workplace stress, global stress, or bereavement stress, the reality is that many of us are facing challenging emotional situations. In this article, we start by learning about the vagus nerve, and its central role in regulating stress and relaxation, and then explain eight practices that help you to activate your vagus nerve to help you remain calm and centred in stressful or difficult emotional situations.
What is the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves. This nerve is exciting because it is involved in emotional regulation – it is activated when we feel compassion and empathy. For this reason, some call it “the love nerve.” Because being compassionate and empathic are essential when providing care. Healthy vagus nerve activity is important for PSWs and nurses who work in palliative care.
Another way that the vagus nerve is involved in emotional regulation is when your brain receives signals from your gut – ‘your gut response’ – signals about stress, anxiety, and fear. This information is collected in part by the vagus nerve, which sends information about whether you are safe or in danger. The vagus nerve’s connection with the parasympathetic nervous system supports us to be calm when we are stressed and helps us know when the danger has passed. It helps us to “rest and digest.” This is low-tone dorsal activity.
The vagus nerve is also involved in responses to stress. When a person is stressed or in danger, their sympathetic nervous system activates, and they enter the ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic response) or ‘freeze’ (parasympathetic response with high tone dorsal activity of the vagus nerve). These responses may make them feel anxious and shaky.
When a person is emotionally healthy, they can respond appropriately to safe or dangerous situations. However, when exposed to emotionally stressful experiences repeatedly over a long period of time, a person may have difficulty returning to calm after a ‘fight or flight’ or ‘freeze’ response. Some people may become hyper-vigilant and anxious at times when they are safe. And they may not be able to respond appropriately to danger.
“…The vagal tone is correlated with the capacity to regulate stress responses”
(Breit et al., 2018).
Vagal tone correlates with our ability to regulate stress responses (Breit et al., 2018). Therefore, restoring and maintaining your vagal tone is one way to support your emotional health, maintain calm within, and build resilience, balance mood, and decrease anxiety.
Another component of the nervous system that is involved in maintaining calm is the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC). It supports calmness in the body and has a hugely beneficial effect on our health and emotional regulation. When the VVC is stimulated, a person may feel safe and secure.
Activities for Maintaining Emotional Health
Healthcare providers, especially those supporting people with life-limiting illness, and integrating a palliative approach, need to provide self-care or they risk suffering compassion fatigue. However, finding the time and energy for self-care can be challenging unto itself. Fortunately, there are activities that support emotional health through the vagus nerve which do not require special time or equipment. Check this list of activities to help maintain your emotional health by stimulating the vagus nerve.
In the Moment
The following activities do not require specific equipment or time. They take a few seconds and up to half a minute of time. As such, they can be implemented during the day to restore calm by stimulating the vagus nerve.
Follow these actions to activate the vagus nerve with your diaphragm.
Take a deep breath and pull your diaphragm down as you breathe in. This type of deep breathing will stimulate the vagus nerve. Two or three deep slow breaths can be sufficient to stimulate the nerve and restore calm.
Consider a “4 – 4 – 8 breathing” – breath in for the count of 4 – hold for a 4 count – breathe out to an 8 count. This breathing will have an instant effect of providing inner calm. In addition, practicing this pattern of breathing for a few minutes a couple of times can benefit your emotional health over the long term.
Essential oils can help us connect with positive feelings and bring on relaxation. Ways to use essential oils in the moment include:
- Applying essential oil using an essential oil ‘roller’
- Placing a drop of oil in your hands and inhaling from cupped hands
- Adding a drop to an essential oil diffuser
- Adding the oil to an unscented lotion and using the lotion as a moisturizer.
Scents to consider for calm and relaxation: lavender, bergamot, or sweet orange. Or a relaxing blend like ‘Calm’, ‘Dusk’, ‘Sleep’, or ‘Legacy’.
Skin touch with another person can be calming. This includes holding hands with someone you care about or hugging them. A hug for 20 seconds or longer releases the hormone, oxytocin. It’s a ‘feel-good’ hormone that has been shown to boost the immune system and reduce stress. Hugging and snuggling with a pet or person can also stimulate the VVC.
There is an acupressure point called Yin Tang or Hall of Impression, that is shown to decrease anxiety and reduce stress. Apply pressure to the acupressure point between the eyebrows, as shown in the image below.
You can use circular massage on the Yin Tang point and combine the massage with essential oil. Apply pressure or massage the Yin Tang point for fifteen seconds or as long as five minutes.
Calming Practices for Non-Work Hours
Here are some things you can do to stimulate the vagal nerve and the VVC when you are not at work. These practices require more time and attention, and some require a health care practitioner. Regardless of which practices you choose to explore, all can help you to strengthen your emotional health.
Loving self-touch through massage or acupressure can bring calm. Stimulate the VVC even more by focusing on your face and the muscles around your mouth, eyes, and ears. Learn how to give yourself an acupressure facial or how to do face yoga.
Treatments with acupuncture are reported to decrease anxiety and promote relaxation for patients. Consider making an appointment for acupuncture treatment with a qualified acupuncturist.
Tapping aka EFT
Emotional Freedom Tapping (EFT) is another way to relieve stress and encourage calm by accessing the mind-body connection. Gentle tapping at specific places on your body can activate the vagus nerve and stimulate vagal tone. Try tapping at the crown of your head and at your heart center. See how you feel. Learn more about tapping here.
Connect your mind with your body through movements like yoga or walking in nature. Physical activity of any kind will encourage relaxation and calm by activating the vagus nerve. In as little as ten minutes of walking, a person can experience reduced stress and an increased sense of calm.
Meditation can be a helpful practice for supporting your emotional health. While meditation can be very powerful, it may take more patience to build the skills than are available if you are feeling stressed. I suggest that people look at building a meditation practice as a long-term goal. We recommend that people attend a class or use an online meditation recording to help build their meditation practice.
Our hope is that one of the practices listed here will resonate with you.
For more information, register for the December 6 FREE WEBINAR to learn and experience these practices with Jessica.
Jessica Knox is a certified yoga practitioner and owner of “A Balanced Body. You will find resources for the practices mentioned in this posting available at A Balanced Body, as well as workshops, classes and options to book appointments for massage, acupuncture, acufacials.