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From stress to feeling safe: why you need to learn to regulate your nervous system

To experience stress is to be human. We can't avoid stress and challenges altogether. Besides, positive stress is something that drives us toward our goals. But what if stress and anxiety take over your life? What if you constantly feel overwhelmed and unsafe, and even the slightest stress takes you off balance?

Our nervous system continuously sends and receives messages of safety, danger, and life threats. It is always looking for signs of warning or welcome. We can only thank our miraculous body for this. However, being constantly on guard is neither healthy nor pleasant.

Why feeling safe is so important to our wellbeing

Feeling safe and calm is crucial for our wellbeing and to live a balanced life The concept of safety has evolved recently. Historically, we have thought of safety as simply being free from physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and neglect. This type of safety is a critical first step to being well. However, we need to broaden our definition of safety to include the psychological aspect of safety. Thankfully, most of us don't have a direct physical danger but might feel psychologically unsafe.

How do you know when you are safe? When we experience psychological safety, we are open, and able to connect. We are curious and creative. We are available for others and can easily focus on people and tasks. We have mental space for enjoying the pleasures of life. We feel grounded. In addition, you might notice that we mostly have good physical health, appetite, digestion, and a good quality of sleep.

In the absence of psychological safety, we experience stress. Think of how you react to a stressful situation, such as a work deadline. For your brain, this 'threat' is as real as the tiger in the bushes. Your whole being is focusing on that one threat only. Stress creates a tunnel vision; we no longer see the bigger picture. We become hypervigilant. Any other extra stressor can trigger a further cascade of stress, worsening the situation and sometimes causing panic attacks. We are constantly alert and have difficulty switching off our mind and body. You might especially notice changes in appetite (you eat too much or not at all) and sleep pattern (low quality of sleep or difficulty falling asleep and maintaining it).

The vagus nerve: your switch from stress to safety

Imagine if there would be a magical switch to turn off the stress and turn on the feeling of safety and relaxation. How great would that be! It might sound unreal, but we have such a 'switch' in our body, although it works more as a slow dimmer than an on-off button. It is our vagus nerve.

The chances are high you haven’t heard about the vagus nerve before, or even if you did, you probably don't know much about it. It was discovered in 1921, and its impact on mental health and well-being has started to grow recently.

The word "vagus" means "wanderer" in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs. It originates on the brain's surface but wanders throughout the body, transmitting information to tissues and organs. The vagus nerve is responsible for various internal organ functions, including digestion, heart rate, breathing, cardiovascular activity, and reflex actions, such as coughing, sneezing, and swallowing.

The vagus nerve's role is to regulate our nervous system, switching between states, which we will discuss further later on. If we work with the vagus nerve, we can learn to regulate the response of our nervous system rather than being carried away by our reactions, physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. We can make our nervous system more flexible, which leads to emotional regulation, stress resilience, more connection to others, and better immunity and overall health.

How to train your vagus nerve and move towards a feeling of being safe

Let's look a bit closer at our nervous system and the vagus nerve's role in it.

The vagus nerve is a vital part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls actions people do unconsciously, such as breathing and digestion. On one side, the vagus nerve helps the nervous system to relax, rejuvenate and take us out of the stress response. On the other side, it helps the body shut down entirely in extreme stress in order to keep us safe.

As we go through life engaging with the world, there are moments when we will feel safe and connected to others or in which we will feel discomfort or danger. However, there is always an opportunity to move in and out of these different states.

The vagus nerve is analogous to a muscle; you can train it to get stronger. Multiple activities, most of which are accessible to anyone, anywhere, can train it, hence helping you regulate your nervous system. To name a few important activities:

Breathing practices

  • Especially in which exhales are longer or at least equal to inhales. One such practice is coherent breathing, which we explained in this blog post.
  • Even as simple as sighing out can work very well.

Meditation

Movement

  • Choose among low-intensity activities such as yoga, stretching, walking, swimming, and mild exercising.
  • When exercising is too intense, it can have a counter effect and put your nervous system into a state of mobilisation (fight-and-flight)

Other practices

  • Singing, chanting, and even laughing
  • (Self-)massage or tapping

How to know if it's working

Have you already tried any of these activities? What did you notice?

Next time you try it out, pay attention to your body's reaction. You'll know that activity had a positive regulating effect when you involuntarily take a deeper breath, yawn, swallow, or sigh, or if the muscles in your neck and shoulders soften and gain range of motion.

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it's time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, well-being and resilience.