How to Alleviate Pandemic Stress Via the Vagus Nerve

Pip Jarvis
happy woman stretching

If endless lockdowns, concern for your loved ones or a loss of income has left you anxious, depressed or feeling stuck, you’re not alone. Pandemic life and its associated stresses have taken their toll on most of us, and the destabilising impact on our central nervous systems has led to heightened, or dulled, emotions.

Across the globe, people are experiencing a range of symptoms dubbed pandemic flux syndrome. In this article, TAS physio Naiha outlines the physiological impacts of chronic Covid stress, before providing practical tips to restore equilibrium by strengthening your vagus nerve. Read on. 

What is the vagus nerve – and how can it impact your mental state?

The longest and most complex of our cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is the epicentre of the mind-body connection. It controls various bodily functions, immune response, digestion, heart rate and mood.

Having a strong vagal tone improves both our psychological and physiological health. It expands the range of sensations we can tolerate without moving into fight, flight or freeze mode. In other words, it expands our nervous system’s resiliency in response to stress – something we’ve experienced at unprecedented levels over the past 18-plus months.

Since the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve all suffered in various ways, and most of us have been pushed outside what we call the Window of Tolerance. 

The nervous system, stress & your ‘Window of Tolerance’

We all have a personal ‘Window of Tolerance’ in which we fluctuate between a healthy level of arousal (via the sympathetic nervous system) and rest (parasympathetic system) in response to normal daily stress. For instance, we utilise the sympathetic system for exercise or to meet a work deadline, and we use the parasympathetic nervous system to digest our food or relax while bingeing Netflix. These are normal variations that allow for the ups and downs of emotions through the day.

(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

Unfortunately, however, when a traumatic event or chronic stress (i.e. Covid) pushes us outside the Window of Tolerance, we can get stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode. Here in Victoria, this has been amplified each time we have gone in and out of lockdown. The following diagram shows the symptoms that can be experienced when we are stuck on “on” (such as anxiety, hyper-vigilance and anger) or stuck on “off” (think depression, lethargy and disconnection).

(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

If you can identify with any of the symptoms above, you may currently be dealing with a dysregulated nervous system. While we can’t eradicate chronic stress, expanding your individual Window of Tolerance will help you regain equilibrium. And one of the simplest ways you can do this is by accessing and strengthening your vagus nerve.

How to expand your Window of Tolerance via the Vagus Nerve

Here are a few simple ways to help improve your vagus nerve’s tone and resilience. 

1. Posture – As the vagus nerve runs from the base of the skull/neck down to the abdomen, poor posture can place too much pressure on the areas the nerve runs through. Remind yourself consistently through the day to sit tall and tuck your chin in.

2. Breathwork – Belly breathing accesses the nerve and allows for relaxation of the large muscles, a slowed heart rate, decreased blood pressure and improved digestion. This then also calms the mind as the body is relaxed.

3. Humming/singing – The vibrations from humming or singing have been shown to access the vagus nerve and settle butterflies in the stomach or tightness in the chest.

4. Introduce healthy stress – Exercise is a wonderful way to build the resiliency of our nervous system through a physical stress that is well controlled. 

5. Choose the unfamiliar – If a high intensity workout is too much right now, simply taking a new route on a walk or going the opposite way can provide a healthy test for your nervous system to navigate through.

6. Talking to a friend – The vagus nerve slows the activity in the amygdala (centre of emotion) and promotes activity in the prefrontal cortex (the cognitive centre associated with self-awareness). If we can talk through our stress, we can bring ourselves back to the present moment instead of being ruled by our emotions.

7. Shaking – Shaking your body or even dancing can release the excess energy that builds up when we are stuck on “on”, with anxious type symptoms.

8. Tapping – Tapping your face, body and arms with two fingers can stimulate energy in your body in a safe and gentle way if you are stuck on “off”, with depressive type symptoms.

9. Massage/foam roller/massage ball – Release work can be one of the fastest ways to stimulate the nerve. A felt sense of relaxation in the body will then be sent through the vagus nerve to calm the mind. (Not sure where to start? Check out our blog explaining how to use a massage ball.)

A final word

Hopefully these ideas will help you manage the intensity and fluctuation of symptoms that we’ve all been facing through Covid. If you would like to explore this further, give us a call and we can find an appointment time that suits you.

Author: Naiha Sahota.

References

Attachment And Trauma Centre For Healing, ‘Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance
Diagrams – Levine, Ogden, Siegel