Breathwork and the Vagus Nerve, the fast track to managing your emotions

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The mind and body are in constant communication, when we’re tuned in, we can manage this conversation, moving out of the natural survival state of negative bias and opening to new possibilities.

Is thinking overrated? According to thought leader and best-selling author Leonard Mlodinow, advances in psychology and neuroscience have proven that emotions are as critical to our well-being as thinking.

It’s easy to assume our feelings develop from the thinking brain, and that they’re logical, rational and right. But that’s a whole lot to expect of our senses. After all, they’re not purely logic-based. Your body has a major influence in how you feel, which effects the way you think.

When you’re hungry, it’s easy to become “hangry”, when you’re tired, it’s hard to feel enthused. And when you’re stressed? Your body responds as your system shifts to prepare to fight, fly or freeze. So even though you’re not in immediate danger, it’s hard to focus, relax, or to stay energized. Even if the stressor is your partner, your job or the morning news.

When your body is sending stress signals, you can’t think our way out of the fear reponse. Luckily there is another pathway, a more direct channel we can use to move our minds from a stress state into a more balanced perspective. It’s the nerve known as vagus, and it connects the organs with the senses as it passes information back and forth to make sure you’re safe and connected.

The vagus nerve is a central communications channel between the brain and body, extending from what’s known as the gut-brain axis, the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines. 

The vagus nerve plays an important role in the gut-brain axis, affecting not only your mood but has also has been implicated in the development of depression and anxiety . Another study, published in the same journal, noted that vagus nerve stimulation may be an additional therapy for treatment-resistant depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. (Of course, these exercises are not a substitute for treatment your provider has recommended for you.)

When you’re caught up in your emotions; anxious, angry or shut down from stress, you can access the vagus nerve, using a combination of breathwork simple movement practices. Enter the breath. The breath serves as a bridge from your body to your brain, consistently monitoring and signaling sensory input about the state of your safety. It’s one of the only systems that functions automatically and that we can also voluntarily control.

It may not surprise you to learn that conscious breathing, especially practices that engage the diaphragm, is the top recommendation for accessing the vagus nerve and intercepting a stress response. Here are 3 simple method for tapping into this amazing resource:

  • Conscious Breathing: The most immediate way to change the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system actions is with the breath. Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone. Click here for one of my favorite practices.
  • Adding sound. When we hum or sing, the vagus nerve is activated— which is one of the reasons why those activities can be so cathartic. Engaging in conscious breathing and adding a humming sound on your exhale is a great way to further engage your vagus.
  • “Loving Kindness” Meditation: Self-compassion and the practice of “loving kindness” ask you to engage in the act of friendliness toward yourself and others. Research on that individuals who practice a loving kindness meditation revealed increased vagal tone, greater autonomic flexibility, an increased sense of social connectedness, and more positive emotions. 

Your mindset is critically dependent on the state of your sensory input. Understanding this relationship takes time. Developing greater conscious awareness of  our internal experiences which are both a result of our external environment and internal biological dynamics.

While we can’t always influence the external environment, each one of us has the tools we need to build our internal awareness, and tap into our natural state of calm.

For more on the amygdala hijack, click here!

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About Elizabeth

I’m Elizabeth Borelli, breathe into breakthrough success coach and author. By combining my years of coaching experience, a BA in psychology, multiple certifications in ICF-accredited life coaching, plant-based nutrition, and RYT 200 yoga teacher training, I’ve developed a unique mind-body approach to personal growth and professional success.