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Sometimes the weight of our struggles compound and we are left feeling very unwell. High stress, overwhelming workloads, traumatic incidents, relationship issues, pain, illness, grief and loss – these are a part of our daily lives, and take a toll on our health and functioning. When we search out support the advice can be varied and not always helpful, despite good intentions. If you feel like you’ve tried many things and you still feel stuck, a helpful (and free) place to start is working with your own nervous system responses.

Working with your nervous system is an easily learnable skill. It’s taken talk therapy time to incorporate this knowledge, but now that we understand the physiology of how our nervous system can get overstimulated and dysregulated by chronic stress and trauma in our lives, we better understand the body-based processes by which we can make it more flexible, regulated, and resilient. There is much you can do on your own for healing, and I share some explanation and resources for you in this blog. 

Getting Oriented with your Autonomic Nervous System

First we need to understand how our autonomic nervous system works and how it gets overstimulated, and I have found the perfect resource. This video is my go to resource for orienting my clients to the workings of your nervous system and how it affects your mental health. It’s worth the time – check it out!

Understanding the Various States of your Autonomic Nervous System

Another resource I refer to is this very helpful info-graphic explaining the various states of the nervous system (and the symptoms within each state), which relates them to the colors on a stop light.

Simplifying your autonomic nervous system states, based off the poly vagal theoryFor a clearer image of this graphic you can open and download the PDF here: Your Nervous System States Simplified PDF

Regulate Your Nervous System With These Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises

It is important to learn techniques that shift your autonomic nervous system out of the flight, flight, or freeze (red/orange) and into the healthy, restorative, and safe state (green), and this is done by learning exercises and resources that stimulate the Vagus Nerve. 

Five Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises:

  1. The vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibrations of humming or singing, is an easy way to influence your nervous system states. Simply pick your favourite tune and hum away, or if you are into yoga, try chanting OM a number of times. Notice and enjoy the feelings in your throat, chest, and head.
  2. Your breath is one of the fastest ways to influence your nervous system states. The aim is to move the bell/ribs and diaphragm with the breath, and slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when we slow the breath from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute, to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by breathing in to a count of 5 with a brief pause at the end, and then exhaling to a count of 7 or 8, with a brief pause at the end.
  3. You can further stimulate the vagus nerve by creating a slight constriction at the back of your throat and creating a “hhh” sound like you are trying to fog up a mirror, but while still exhaling through your nose. In yoga this is called Ujjayi Pranayama.
  4. Valsava maneuver – this refers to a process of trying to breathe out against a closed airway. You can do this by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. This increases pressure inside the chest cavity which increases vagal tone.
  5. Proprioceptive input – the experience of pressure and touch can stimulate the vagus nerve. Some examples are weight/light pressure to the core of the body (e.g. a weighted blanket or lying prone on a cushion), light pressure or over the eyes (weighted eye pillow), massages, and tightly rolling up in a blanket like a burrito.

Additional Ways to Settle and Regulate Your Nervous System

As a rule your nervous system will settle and regulate when you engage in activities and behaviours that are nourishing, nurturing and safe. Here are a few examples:

  • Move your body – Yoga, stretching, walking, dancing, etc.
  • Prioritizing getting enough sleep
  • Connect to your body – learn to feel sensations, notice what’s present within 
  • Get out in nature; feel the sun on your face
  • Make space in your day for rest & play
  • Meet yourself with kindness – offer yourself compassion over judgment
  • You accept and validate your feelings (It’s important to feel emotionally heard and seen)
  • Resolve & process your trauma (connect with a therapist)
  • Hold safe & nurturing relationships (spend more time with the right people)
  • Allow yourself to rest without guilt
  • Make your body feel safe
  • Take some intentional deep breaths (shallow breaths are a signal to your nervous system you are in fight/flight)
  • Less staring at a screen (locked eyes signal to the nervous system you are in a stress response)
  • Lean into self-forgiveness
  • Soak in joy and laughter
  • Accept your humanness

I hope this blog gives you some resources in better understanding why and how your nervous system state can be a source of healing mental health challenges. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments!

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