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  • Dina Cohen

Your Secret Weapon Against Stress

Have you ever seen a child chewing his fingers or sleeve when he was nervous? This kid may be smarter than you know! What looks like an annoying habit is actually stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Ahem...the whaat?

If you're not well-acquainted with your vagus nerve, there's no time like the present. Your vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body. Its name comes from the Latin word for "wandering" because it wanders from the brainstem throughout the body. It impacts your heart rate, digestion, and lung function. One of the very cool functions of the vagus nerve is to counteract your fight-or-flight response (your sympathetic nervous system). This means that when it is stimulated, it helps you feel relaxed (by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system). Turns out chewing on something really does help you calm down!

Having a "healthy vagal tone" means you will more easily be able to relax after a stressful situation instead of staying stuck in the fight-or-flight. state. People who can bounce back quickly after a stressful experience not only have better mental health, they have improved physical health as well. Fortunately, you aren't limited to chewing to help you feel calm and relaxed. There are plenty other potential ways to stimulate your vagus nerve:

  • Singing

  • Laughing

  • Humming

  • Meditating

  • Breathing deeply

  • Getting a massage

  • Doing yoga

  • Taking probiotics

  • Consuming omega-3 fatty acids

  • Exposure to cold

The coolest thing about all this to me is that our bodies often know what to do even without our input. Long before I knew anything about the vagus nerve, I realized that I sing when I'm stressed out. Similarly, many people recognize that "laughter is the best medicine" without understanding the mechanics of it. You may sense that a back rub helps you feel better without knowing why. Our bodies have so much wisdom.

The other amazing thing is that the mind-body connection is a two-way street. When you're stressed, your digestion can be negatively impacted, but conversely, when you have a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut (sometimes achieved via probiotics), you can achieve a healthier vagal tone and decrease your stress levels. Taking care of your body truly is a win-win proposition, because you're taking care of your mind as well. Plus, now you know you have a secret weapon!

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