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Vagus Trick

What is your vagus nerve and how can you use its power for instant relaxation?

Vagus is Latin for 'wandering', so the name is rather fitting as your vagus nerve wanders widely about the body on route from the base of your brain down to your colon (see its extent in the pic below). It controls both sensory and motor function for parts of your tongue, throat, lungs, heart, small and large intestines as well as releasing proteins and enzymes which kick-start your 'rest and repair' mode, the parasympathetic nervous system.

The anatomy of the vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve (you actually have 2, although nerve pairs are referred to in the singular)

Research shows that people with strong vagus nerve response recover faster from injury and illness and have greater resilience to stress. As a result of that, electrical vagus nerve stimulation via implants is now a burgeoning medical field ('bioelectronics') with promising treatment prospects for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases such as Arthritis, as well as for Alzheimer's Disease and epilepsy. 

Whilst we cannot control the vagus nerve with our conscious minds to tap in to its mechanisms for restorative function, we can hack in to a small part of it artificially, and use a very simple technique to rapidly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, and to cool anger.  Sounds cool, right. How's that done? With a breathing trick. It has long been recognised in practices such as meditation, yoga, Ayurveda and sports psychology that diaphragmatic breathing can have astounding affects in both relaxing the body and focusing the mind. Watch a tennis champion forcefully control their breath as they lean over and bounce a ball a few times on the spot before serving; what they are doing there (apart from testing the ball), is hijacking an action of their vagus nerve, as on the intake of breath the body temporarily accelerates heart rate, and on the out-breath the vagus nerve secretes a transmitter substance (acetylcholine) which causes the heart rate to slow. So, by lengthening the out-breath in relation to the in-breath, it's possible to tip the balance and cause a temporary slowing of your heart rate. Think back to the tennis player, now under the pressure of match-point, but able to banish the jitters caused by the adrenaline flooding her system, and to refocus wholly on her body-mechanics and game strategy. This breathing technique works swiftly thanks to the vagus nerve's quick-fire response to exhalation length, and is well worth anyone trying: 

Regulate your breathing to an in-breath count of 4, and an out-breath count of 5, working up to a out-count of 6-7 after the third repetition. Be mindful of not over-doing the out-breath to the point that you gasp on the in-breath however, as vagus nerve over-stimulation can lower blood pressure to the point of fainting.

Give it a go the next time you get stressed, maybe whilst waiting in an annoyingly long queue, or when somebody is seriously testing your patience. It really does work.

I guide my clients through a similar breathing technique at the start and end of each massage, at the same time asking them to mentally scan down their body and consider silently for themselves how everything feels at the time, how heavy or light the muscles feel, how weary or relaxed. I find the combination of focusing on the body (instead of the outside world) and lowering the heart rate really helps boost all the wonderful, restorative benefits a massage will have.

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