stressed woman with burn out and nerves

Is Stress Literally Getting On Your Nerves?

9 mins

Running on empty with our stressful, busy lifestyles can affect a little known nerve sending signals to our brain leaving us with everything from trouble sleeping, to anxiety, high blood pressure and digestive and memory problems

Florence rushes from A to B, gasping: ‘can’t stop!’ to anyone who wants to chat. She meets most of her work deadlines at the very last minute, then can’t sleep for worrying her efforts weren’t good enough. She doesn’t pause for breath before she’s on to her next commitment, whether she’s helping a friend through her divorce or training for a triathlon, all the time feeling she could do better.

But recently, this busy, busy, busy lifestyle has taken its toll for Florence, 43, who works in digital marketing. ‘I know I’m always anxious and I beat myself up for not being good enough or doing well enough,’ she confesses. ‘I get a lot of bloating, followed by stomach ache and irritable bowel type symptoms. I feel so tired and anxious these days.’

Vagus Nerve Damage

Many of us, like Florence, are paying the price of a stressful, wired lifestyle. As a result, our days and evenings are jammed with jobs and commitments, and there’s little downtime.

And this, according to experts, is affecting a little-known nerve – the vagus nerve, which carries signals between our brain, heart and digestive system. Pronounced like Vegas, the US city, this nerve takes its name from the Latin word ‘vagus’ which means ‘wandering’.

Nutritionist Victoria Tipper, Wellbeing Consultant at 2b Limitless in Dubai, explains: ‘The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the base of the brain and wandering through the neck and chest before stretching out to the digestive, immune and cardiovascular system.

Fight or Flight Mode

busy woman overload and stress getting literally on her nerves

‘It acts as the main line of communication between the brain and other organs, in particular the digestive system, and it plays a major role in our parasympathetic nervous system. This system is our ‘rest and digest’ system, and it’s the counterbalance to the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system.’

According to experts, if our vagus nerve isn’t healthy and toned, we’re less likely to bounce back after a period of stress. Instead of dealing with the pressure in question and returning to our normal state of ‘rest and digest’, we stay in ‘fight or flight’. 

And this means our bodies remain flooded with adrenaline, which makes our hearts beat faster, causes our blood pressure to go up and gives us more energy. We also produce more cortisol, the primary stress hormone, which increases sugar in the bloodstream. In short, we’re always on high alert, and in ‘emergency’ mode.

If our vagus nerve isn’t healthy we’re in persistent emergency mode meaning our bodies remain flooded with adrenaline, which makes our hearts beat faster, causes our blood pressure to go up and we produce more cortisol, which increases sugar in the bloodstream

Energy healer and yoga teacher Saira Francis runs Mellulah Retreats in Dorset and Cornwall, in the south of England, to teach people how to care for their vagus nerve.

She explains: ‘Unlike other nerves, about 85 per cent of the vagus nerve’s function is to send signals back to the brain. If you suffer with stress, anxiety or trauma, the vagus nerve will be constantly telling your brain that you are not at all safe and that danger is coming. You won’t drop back into a relaxed state. Someone who is stuck at ‘on’ can’t go to ‘off’.’

So how do we know if our vagus nerve needs help? Victoria says: ‘Signs of a poorly functioning vagus nerve include an elevated heart rate, sleep disturbances, anxiety and digestive issues such as bloating and acid reflux.

If our vagus nerve is untoned, we’ll perceive the world as a threat. If someone looks at you in a strange way, or is rude, you’ll be triggered. This is because you’re living in a state of trauma, a place where you don’t feel safe, and everything is a potential disaster’

‘People might experience bacterial overgrowth in the GI (gastrointestinal) tract, which, when functioning normally, helps remove waste and bad microbes. You may even experience issues with swallowing and have a hoarse voice.’

Saira highlights the mental effects of poor vagus nerve function. ‘You could feel confused and muddled or have memory problems,’ she says. ‘You will also be exhausted from living in a state of constant emergency.

Primal Behaviour

The vagus nerve sends signals to the brain and if it is unhealthy our health is compromised
The vagus nerve sends signals to the brain and if it is unhealthy our health is compromised

‘Our neuroception – the part of us that acts in a primal way – is affected. If our vagus nerve is untoned, we’ll perceive the world as a threat. Say someone looks at you in a strange way, or speaks rudely to you, you’ll be triggered. This is because you’re living in a state of trauma, a place where you don’t feel safe, you’re scared, and everything is a potential disaster. You’ll mistake people’s actions for a threat.’

As well as chronic stress and anxiety, some medical conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and multiple sclerosis, can affect the vagus nerve. Viral conditions such as Epstein-Barr or herpes, and tumours in the neck or chest area, along with trauma to those areas, can also impact the nerve.

Victoria also points out: ‘The vagus nerve’s function seems to decline as we age, and it can alter, along with our hormones, so women may experience changes during their menstrual cycle, when they are pregnant or going through the menopause. In addition, a diet full of highly processed foods and sugar also impacts the vagus nerve.’

So how can we tone a nerve we can’t see, touch or even feel? Saira and Victoria share their top ten tips to keep yours in the best of health.

Bend Over Backwards

Try some gentle yoga poses to stimulate the nerve, suggests Saira. ‘Because the nerve runs down the neck, chest and upper back, back bends and side bends will stimulate it,’ she says. ‘Asanas such as cobra pose and sphinx, where you rest on your arms and do a little back bend, will help a lot.’

Find A Happy Tribe

Create some high quality, positive social connections with people who leave you feeling energised and happy, suggests Victoria.

‘Make a ritual around spending time with people who make you feel you’ve had a net gain in your energy and minimise time with those who leave you feeling your energy has been taxed,’ she says.

Bee A Hummer

woman doing yoga with cat watching to deal with stress and nerves
‘What do you mean, you’re going to do the Downward Dog?’ Yoga and breathing will help de-stress you (and possibly your cat).

Use the Bhramari (humming bee) breath to stimulate the back of your throat, advises Saira. ‘To do this, bring your hands over your eyes, close off your ears with your thumbs, then take a deep breath in and hum your breath out,’ she says. ‘This creates a vibration at the back of the throat. Alternatively, try Om chanting – going through Ah – Oo – Mm sounds.’

Sleep On It

Focus on quality of sleep, as well as quantity, advises Victoria. ‘Practise good sleep hygiene by having a power-down hour, with no access to screens before bed,’ she recommends. ‘Keep to consistent sleep and wake times, avoid caffeine after midday, remove electronics from your bedroom, make sure your bedroom is completely dark and cool and, if possible, get some morning sunshine within 30 minutes of waking.’

Count Your Breath

Make your out-breath longer than your in-breath to tell the brain you’re safe, says Saira. ‘The inhale breath works with the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), while the exhale connects to the parasympathetic system (rest and digest), the part we want to find when we are stressed,’ she explains. ‘Inhale for a count of four, hold your nose, tuck your chin to your chest and hold for four, then raise your head and exhale for a count of six.’

Cool It 

Take a temperature drop and use some cold therapy, with ice packs, cold compresses and cold water, says Saira.

‘Pop an ice pack or a cold compress on the back of your neck for between 15 seconds and a minute, to start with, or put a flannel or tea towel in the freezer and then place it on your breastbone to reset the vagus nerve.’

Eyes Right

Even switching your gaze from left to right can tone your vagus nerve, according to Saira. ‘Turn your gaze to the right as far as you can see and hold it there for 30 seconds, then go to the left for 30 seconds,’ she says. ‘It may feel insignificant, but it’s basically a reset because the vagus nerve runs right through the eyes.’

Power Shower

Switch the temperature dial to cold for at least 15 seconds at the end of your shower, suggests Saira. ‘Doing it at the end of a lovely, warm shower will ensure the cold stays with you,’ she explains. ‘You’ll have a release of dopamine within a few seconds – that’s the feelgood hormone that gives you courage and it will last for a couple of hours.’

Scan Your Body

Use a guided meditation – a yoga nidra – to do a body scan relaxation to get your brain to drop down into theta state, says Saira.

‘You could go to a yoga class where there’s a form of relaxation at the end, or find a suitable one on the Internet,’ she advises. ‘You’ll work through the body, relaxing from your toes to the top of your head. It will take you into a deep state of consciousness.’

Laugh It Off

women laughing together

A good belly laugh is a wonderful exercise for the vagus nerve, says Saira. ‘Get together with some great friends and make enough other laugh,’ she says. ‘If you don’t have anyone to laugh with, watch some funny YouTube videos of cats and dogs, or tune in to your favourite comedy. Anything that gets you giggling will counteract the stress response.’

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