Most of us can recall our grannies sharing old wives’ tales with advice on how to manage those stressful moments in our lives such as “take a deep breath” or “splash some cold water on your face”. Some of us swear by this advice, while others may be more dismissive of these simple and seemingly ‘too good to be true’ techniques.
Interestingly, scientists are now beginning to understand why granny might have been right all along!
It turns out, our largest cranial nerve – the vagus nerve, plays a key role in reducing the physical symptoms of the stress and anxiety we commonly experience. As part of our parasympathetic nervous system, this nerve connects to most of our major organs and acts as a link between our mind and body.
This advice we’ve been using all these years can actually be explained by understanding what activates the vagus nerve and how this affects our body. Take for example granny’s advice to ‘take a deep breath’ - this aligns with the understanding we now have about the benefits of controlled and deep breathing; often promoted as part of relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga and tai chi. It turns out that the process of deep, slow breathing activates the vagus nerve, counteracting the physical symptoms we experience when stressed or anxious by triggering our muscles to relax and reducing our heart rate and blood pressure.
Likewise, research has identified that exposure to cold activates vagal activity, giving an explanation for the calming effect that splashing our face with cold water, or even taking a cold shower, can have when feeling anxious. We are also beginning to recognise the links between the vagal nerve and other mental health difficulties, such as depression; where depressed individuals have been shown to experience reduced vagal activity and stimulation is being utilised as a potential treatment.
Perhaps science is now catching up with what our ancestors have recognised over the centuries and provides an evidence-base for some of the behaviour which has become engrained in habits, customs and cultures across the world.
The more we learn about the vagal response the more persuasive this seems. Other methods of activating the vagal nerve include stimulation of the vocal chords for example gargling, humming, singing, laughing and chanting. Could this be the fundamental rational for the mood lifting effects of singing, the calming effects of chanting used in many cultures and even the benefits of laughter therapy?
The efficiency of the vagal response, often termed vagal tone, is recognised as having wider health implications and could be an important factor in numerous health problems including cardiovascular conditions and strokes, depression, anxiety, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome and inflammatory conditions such as IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorders and endometriosis. The activities which stimulate the vagal nerve and alleviate our physical symptoms of stress and anxiety also help to improve this vagal tone and therefore wider wellbeing and health.
So the next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, why not give some of these activities a try:
- Deep, slow breathing using your diaphragm
- Singing, humming or chanting
- Drinking cold water, splashing cold water on your face or a cold shower
It’s likely we will learn more about the importance of this nerve and the role it plays in the years to come. Perhaps our new understanding of the science provides a rationale for the more sceptical to give granny’s advice a go after all!
Becca & Michelle