May is Mental Health Awareness Month. My hope is that the mental health and mental performance concepts I put here are usable to anyone. I also want to help make sure they’re easy to understand.
Today I am going to talk about an important nerve in the body that influences the brain problem — but it’s rarely talked about.
It’s a gamble. It’s the vagus nerve.
What happens within the vagus nerve never stays in the vagus nerve. It shows up in multiple aspects of our body. The vagus regulates mood, body language, digestion, breathing, and heart rate, among others. It connects pretty much every part of the body.
It’s the transmission of the brain and runs the autonomic nervous system. It helps us shift between the branches of the nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system — which scans for danger. The vagus nerve also affects the parasympathetic nervous system, which chills us out, and the enteric nervous system — the gut brain — which is responsible for digestion.
It also regulates the immune system. It’s one nerve with four functions. That’s sick.
Many mental health disorders occur when our vagus nerve has low vagal tone. Depression, PTSD, anxiety, OCD and others can occur. Low vagal tone is the result of being stuck in a hypervigilant state. If our environment is chaotic, we chronically stay there. Here is a link that explains Polyvagel theory.
Heart rate variability, a measure of vagal tone, is low when we are in fight flight or freeze mode. It’s high when we are relaxed. You improve your vagal tone by adding more relaxation responses to your day — practices like massage, reflexology, yoga, tai chi, meditation, heart rate variability training and breathing practice. Daily exercise and good sleep are also great ways to improve vagal tone.
Here are some lesser known hacks. Try gargling a couple of times per day, humming, chanting and/or using mantra. I know — this sounds crazy. Practice deep breathing while taking a cold shower. Start with 15 seconds, and progress to two minutes.
For long term practice, my go-to is meditation. Sometimes I try heart rate variability training with the Inner Balance App. Here is a video we did that talks about how it works.
But the simplest way to improve it is to be socially engaged is human interaction. Here is a video we did that talks about human connection. Connecting with people you love and love to be around is so important. You know the people when you see them. It brings a smile to your heart and your face.