It's super-helpful to know how to use the vagus nerve to promote instant calm in your nervous system, mind and body.
Otherwise, if your nervous system is chronically triggered by stress and anxiety, you may remain in fight-or-flight for long periods and this will harm your mood, wellbeing and health.
Listen in for a quick primer on how the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) works and why you should care, plus Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory.
When you understand the real negative effects of chronic stress on rest, repair, and social functions, you will quickly see how important (and easy!) it is to manage the ANS. Learn various exercises and techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. Listeners are invited to join the Burnout to Leadership program for further support.
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Dex (00:00:09) - Hi, everyone. My name is Dex Randall and this is the Burnout to Leadership podcast, where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work. Hello, my friends. This is Dex. Thank you for joining me for this week's episode on the Magical Vagus nerve. And this was a little known nerve until it hit the big time recently and became insta famous. And it's a really useful nerve to know about if you suffer from burnout, chronic stress, anxiety, fear, PTSD, or even a really bad case of self-criticism because you can use the vagus nerve to calm your Autonomic Nervous Aystem or ANS and significantly reduce the horrors of stress, anxiety and burnout and ongoing harm to your mind, body, emotions and spirit. It's that important. So I'm going to give you a little quick overview today of the ANS and the vagus nerve. I'm going to keep it short because otherwise we could do a whole podcast series on this. So let's start here to understand that little gem, the vagus nerve, which I'm going to talk about in a minute.
Dex (00:01:21) - We first do need to talk about why we need it. We need to understand the ANS. And the ANS is the nervous system that manages our fight, flight or freeze response. If you're old school, it does that by triggering our sympathetic fight or flight state or parasympathetic calm or rest state. You might also know Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory that proposes three stages of the ANS. Dorsal vagus, this is the freeze state that immobilizes us and shuts down bodily functions, for example, fainting or dissociation. This happens where fight or flight are really not going to help. And this is often what happens for children because they're not strong enough to fight or flee. And then the second. The first state's dorsal vagus, the second state is sympathetic. This is your fight or flight. And the third stage is ventral vagus, which promotes social engagement, connection and relaxation. When it's activated, it supports calmness, rest, digestion and a sense of safety. It allows for positive social interactions and bonding. Thus highlighting the importance of creating safe environments and promoting social connectedness for overall well-being.
Dex (00:02:42) - If you'd like a primer on the fight or flight, there's a lot of material on Google and I will include some very good books and some vagus books in the show notes of this episode, notably Stanley Rosenberg on vagus nerve exercises, Stephen Porges on Polyvagal Theory and Bonnie Badenoch on trauma and stress response. But for now, it's enough to know a few key concepts that I'm going to share with you here. And for you, if you're in burnout, hold tight as we go through. What we're learning here is the way your ANS works and why it matters, how you can help it work better and why you'd want to do that. Although frankly, I doubt you need very much prompting. Working with the ANS I have found to be one of the most powerful self-care techniques that you can use right away to calm your mind and body. And by the way, to return to the present moment and resume, you know, optimum functioning as well. So first, here are the five things you need to know about your ANS and then we'll go on to do to look at the exercises that you can do at any time, many of which involve the vagus nerve to manage fight or flight.
Dex (00:03:57) - So here's fact number one about the when we perceive potential risks in our environment, for example, a rabid dog, or rabid boss, automatically triggers fight or flight or sometimes freeze before conscious thought kicks in. Because if there's a danger, we want to escape first, ask questions later. Right? So you can't control your ANS in the moment by force of will or thought, although you can influence it to fire less often. Firstly, by cultivating deep mindfulness practices. Secondly, by managing the root cause of stress and anxiety directly. And thirdly, you can influence your inner state with vagus exercises, which we'll see in a moment. And all of these really we cover in coaching as they form a vital step in burnout recovery. So number one, first fact, you can't prevent fight or flight by thinking. Number two. Once fight or flight is triggered, our bodies flood with stress hormones and a huge number of physiological changes occur very rapidly in the body to enable this fight or flight. Some functions are upregulated. Heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing, energy supply to motor muscles.
Dex (00:05:17) - And some functions are downregulated because we don't need them to survive. For example, reproduction, digestion, sleep, muscle repair, immune system, growth, cognitive function. So number two, stress hormones are ready for fight or flight. Number three. What many people don't know is that there are far more changes than the ones we commonly hear about. For example, our vision narrows focus in the foreground. Our ears similarly tune out background ambient sound, both of which affect our ability to be in social relationship, if you think about it. And the reason these effects are important to know is if we experience chronic anxiety or fear, if we feel perpetually a little bit unsafe and on edge, it may be that our ANS is triggered frequently and for long periods, giving us long term suppression of our rest and repair and social functions. So number three, rest, repair and social functions shut down. Number four in the caveman past when I was triggered into sympathetic fight or flight mode, we would deal with the incoming danger.
Dex (00:06:29) - You know, the snake, the bear or whatever. And then when the danger passed, we give our body a little shake down, releasing residual tension and also resetting our nervous system to parasympathetic or ventral vagal, rest and repair. Effectively our ANS default safe state. And our heart rate and respiration would calm, energy would disperse, and our bodily functions would revert to normal. Unfortunately, in modern life where threats are rarely physical or life threatening because they're mostly driven by anxiety, we no longer perceive any signal that the threat is over. We can't detect that so often fight or flight remains on and doesn't reset to parasympathetic state or ventral vagal at all. You know, and the reason that's very bad news for people with chronic stress, anxiety or burnout is that we need our rest, repair and social functions to be our normal human state. We need those functions to work. We need to digest food, sleep, have good immune function. And if we don't get all of those things, our bodies will be in a chronic emergency state of stress, which they're just not designed for.
Dex (00:07:45) - And really, over the longer term, illness and debility and exhaustion will ensue. So number four these days, we don't shake fight or flight very easily. And as you're listening to all that, think for a moment how much of each day you spend in an alarmed state, anxious, unsafe, in dread or fear or stress. And then think about the quality of your sleep, digestion, immune system, sexual function, cognitive function. Think about how stress affects your social relationships. If it makes them harder, does it increase your loss of trust? Increase your sense of uncertainty? The amount of conflict in your life? The stress of separation from the comfort of others? Your helplessness? Brain Fog? Negative thinking? Feeling? A loss of belonging and closeness often compounds and prolongs our anxieties and therefore our stress state. So do you frequently withdraw from social contact, maybe to regroup, or from shame or embarrassment, or to protect yourself? Feels protective sometimes. And then if you do that, do you snack more and do you get less work done? Really think about how being in stress day affects your daily life.
Dex (00:09:06) - And I'm putting these ducks in a row for you because chronic stress for me is an axis around which such debilitating loss of function, connection and enjoyment turn. So I think it's very good for us to be directly aware of it. Because if you're a burnout, you probably have long term chronic stress. And I would regard long term in this context as being decades, not months or years. Perhaps it's been so long for you that you've forgotten when you didn't feel this way. So really, I think this is a bonus for you to listen on to these exercises. What we're going to do now is we'll look at some straightforward ways to soothe your nervous system and support it back to parasympathetic or ventral vagus rest, repair and social state. And number one, this might surprise you. I think the first way for me in our modern world, where trauma happens relatively frequently and it often ends up in PTSD, is this. In a situation that's traumatic, a way we might avoid PTSD developing afterwards is to have a safe adult present who will stay with us, protect and care for us, give us reassurance and gentle touch, and most importantly, listen to us and our story about what's happened with deep acceptance.
Dex (00:10:30) - If you do experience a traumatic event and you have access to such person, being with them can help a lot. Of course, you can't always control for that. And also, it doesn't replace the need for medical, mental, health or other care. But I just wanted you to know that, you know, if optimally, if such a person is available, go get them. Because being listened to, held, cared for, may allow us to process the difficult experience and emotions of trauma safely in the moment and release stress, rather than parking up our story and our traumatized feelings deep in our body and psyche where they might later resurface as PTSD. The other thing I've found that works especially well for physical trauma, like a road accident, is to allow the body to shake or tremble freely after the event, because this is how the body naturally discharges the stress hormone induced tensions and effects of fight or flight. It lets the body release energy, the muscles relax and the ANS return to parasympathetic or ventral vagal state.
Dex (00:11:41) - So if that happens for you and you find yourself shaking, don't try and stop yourself shaking. Nothing I say here about trauma, of course, it's a substitute for professional advice and care. But anyway, that was one. So releasing the trauma in the moment. Number two, let's come back to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve if you don't know what it is, is a cranial nerve running from the brain stem down to the abdomen. And it's a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps regulate the body's relaxation response. And stimulating this nerve can help counteract the stress response associated with anxiety. Regular exercises can be used to improve what we call vagal tone, which refers to the effectiveness of the regulation. And really we'd like to improve our vagal tone because vagal tone helps with emotional resilience heart health, digestive health, inflammation, control and immune function, just to name a few. So what are the vagus exercises? Let's walk through a few of them. So the first one is deep breathing.
Dex (00:12:59) - Where really an animal is in fight or flight will have very rapid breathing. So when we deliberately breathe very deeply and slowly, it signals to our nervous system that the the threat is gone and that safety can be restored. It's okay to be calm now. So because of that, we do a very slow outbreath particularly. And one of the things you may have heard is the 478 method of breathing. So we inhale through the nose for a count of four. And then we hold the in-breath for a count of seven. And then we exhale through the mouth with a kind of sound for a count of eight. And that very slow outbreath is what signals really strongly to the nervous system to calm down. We do a breath like that 2 or 3 times. That should be enough. So exercise one deep breathing. Two is singing, chanting or gargling. So the vagus nerve goes down the kind of neck and throat. So singing, chanting and gargling all activate the muscles at the back of the throat, which then activate the vagus nerve.
Dex (00:14:14) - Number three, the one you may have heard of, is cold water, cold water on the face or cold showers or an ice bath also stimulate the vagus nerve to reset. Another one I mentioned already is mindfulness meditation. This is more of a long term fix because it increases our vagal tone and it manages anxiety kind of cumulatively the more and more that we do it. But really, when we're in mindful meditation, what we're doing is we're calming our breathing, we're focusing on our body and being connected to our body. Basically, it is a stress lowering technique all by itself. And in the same way, yoga and tai chi, very centered on deep breathing and gentle, slow movement, also will touch the vagus. The next one is acupressure or massage. So because the vagus goes down the back of the neck, it's quite a long nerve, goes all the way down the body. There's quite a lot of acupressure specific stress relief points, so you can use any of those. Or if you're going to massage, then massaging around the whole of the neck, behind the ears and down the chest will also stimulate the vagus nerve.
Dex (00:15:30) - Laughter and social connection also stimulate the vagus nerve. Now I'm going to separate those two out. Laughter I think of is something we really only do when we're very relaxed in a social context. So that's a good signal to the vagus. Social connection operates in another way. If we are in a space with a safe human, a human who is feeling safe right now, when we're not feeling safe, we can kind of take on their feeling of safety because on an animal level, what they're saying is, I'm safe. It's okay for you to be safe. So even being in a room with somebody whose nervous system is in a rest and repair phase will assist us to be in rest and repair. Quite apart from the social connection and the dynamics and the speech and the content that we get and the care that we get. So social connection is quite a powerful one. And the last one is listening to calming music or sounds. Usually it's going to bring our pulse down. It will reduce stress. Whatever is calming music or sound for you.
Dex (00:16:32) - Give it a whirl. So this is a whole bunch of exercises. Try any or all of them. It really doesn't matter which one you use, but I do recommend you practice each time you feel stress or anxiety and you feel in a heightened activated state, just practice them then right in the moment. Because the vagus nerve, as you can see, it's really quite easily and effectively stimulated. The body gives us a lot of opportunity to bring our nervous system back into balance. And also I'm going to give you a little physical exercise that's quick, easy, effective, and you're going to love this. If you're anxious or in burnout, you're going to be able to tell whether it's working or not. And that's why I love it. And it's very quick. It's from Stanley Rosenberg's book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. A very excellent read, which I recommend you will see in the show notes. Anyway, Stanley's basic exercise for stimulating the vagus nerve is done sitting, standing or lying down.
Dex (00:17:33) - It's really easiest to learn lying down, so I'm going to describe it that way. Please obviously don't do these exercises when you're driving. Right. So here we go. So put your hands in front of you and weave the fingers of one hand with the fingers of the other. So they're locked together. And then put your lock together hands behind your head. If you're lying on the floor, you can take the weight of your head on your hands. And your hands should be on your skull, not on your neck. Right. And when you're there, keep your head facing directly forwards, or upwards if you're lying on the floor and then look to the right. But when you look to the right, don't move your head. Just move your eyes. Keep your head facing forward. Move your eyes to look to the right. And stay there for 30s, a minute, or so. And notice if you yawn, sigh or swallow. Because that's going to be your ANS resetting right there. If you do yawn, sigh of swallow then look back to the front and repeat the exercise.
Dex (00:18:39) - Still, without moving your head, just moving your eyes to look to the left until once again you yawn, sigh or swallow. So see the link in the show notes for more information about this one. And if you do like this exercise, there are several more in Stanley's book that you might also like. I recommend you read it. So now you know what's happening in your nervous system when you're stressed, fearful or anxious, and you've learned some highly effective techniques to bring your nervous system back to a resting state. And I do encourage you to practice and experiment with the exercises actually in the moment when you feel stressed, because that's when they work right then to reset you to a calm state. And think about the alternative, right? If you don't do this, if you don't, if you let your gas run its own path, then you're if you're already in fight or flight. Your anxious brain will probably seize that opportunity to doom scroll more fearful thoughts that prolong your stress day and that is not good for your mental, physical, emotional or social well-being.
Dex (00:19:52) - I really hope you've learned something useful today and that you'll practice for yourself and discover the amazing power of the vagus nerve. So rightly famous. And if you're in burnout, listen for the link at the end, you must come and talk to me about how to recover quickly and sustainably and get back to your best performance leadership. Most of all, enjoyment inside work and out. And if you enjoyed this episode, please help us reach more people who are in burnout by rating and reviewing the podcast. I would really appreciate that. If you yourself know somebody else who is in chronic stress, chronic anxiety heading towards burnout, please send them the link to this episode. I recommend that if people are new, they also listen to the first five episodes of the podcast to get started. Thank you so much for being here today. If you're in burnout and ready to recover. Come and join my burnout to leadership program. You can book in to talk with me a burnout or just tell me what's bugging you and let's make a plan to fix it.