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Panic attacks and other manifestations of anxiety disorders are rampant in our society. Rates soared 25% during the pandemic, and they were rising before. Fortunately, your body has an information superhighway that, when activated, can help you relax. The right vagus nerve exercises offer one path to relief.
Fortunately, humans instinctively know certain tricks — you witness them at work whenever a mother comforts her crying infant by rubbing their back while crooning under their breath. Modern anatomical science teaches ways for people of any age to comfort themselves when life gets too much.
Are you ready to take better charge of your nervous system responses and experience relief? Here are five vagus nerve exercises that can help you quell panic fast.
What Is Your Vagus Nerve? How Does It Help You Relax
The word “vagus” has the same root as “vagabond.” It’s thus called because of how the longest of your 12 cranial nerves wanders through your chest and abdominal cavity, touching on multiple major organs.
Your vagus nerve is also one of the primary ones in your parasympathetic nervous system. Your body’s autonomic nervous system has two branches:
- Sympathetic: Governs your fight-or-flight response and voluntary muscle movements.
- Parasympathetic: Controls your “rest-and-digest” functions. It helps you relax after fight or flight and governs involuntary muscle movements, like digestion and heart rate.
Therefore, you might hear a lot about vagus nerve activation in therapy. That’s because certain exercises help trigger this body system, turning on your body’s parasympathetic response. As a result, you begin to calm down, your head clears, and you’re able to think more soberly about your situation.
Fortunately, your vagus nerve wanders close to your body surface in some areas. Therefore, you can apply the following techniques to yourself.
5 Vagus Nerve Exercises for When Panic Threatens
The following five vagus nerve exercises can help you restore a sense of calm when panic threatens. It’s also helpful to have a plan, especially if you’ve experienced negative consequences for your behavior in the past related to your anxiety.
Before going into a high-tension situation, identify an exit strategy. It can be as simple as excusing yourself to use the restroom for a moment. Once you find a quiet place, you can use these techniques to soothe you until you feel calm enough to re-enter the fray.
1. The Great Chill “Pill”
One vagus nerve exercise includes using the power of cold to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. It’s one of the fastest ways to kickstart your vagus by applying a powerful external stimulus to propel it into gear.
The best way to take advantage if you’re in a public place is by excusing yourself to the restroom to run cold water. Of course, this trick doesn’t work in Phoenix, AZ, in the summertime — but you can use the ice in your reusable bottle for the same purpose. What should you do? Splash it on your face, especially around the sides where your cheek meets your chin and ear. Alternatively, rub an ice cube in this area.
Why it works: your vagus nerve wanders along the side of your face near your ear, where it meets your trigeminal and other major nerve fibers.
Better yet, take a cold shower. There’s a reason that people used to prescribe this remedy for cooling yourself down if you got too hot and bothered. Your vagus nerve wanders all around your back, and the sensation of the icy stream can relax you — especially once you step out of the flow and swaddle yourself in a big, dryer-warmed robe.
2. The Soothing Self-Hug
Mamas instinctively rub their baby’s back, which isn’t only for burping. Remember, your parasympathetic nervous system governs your rest and digest functions, so this move pulls double duty, helping soothe an infant’s wee tummy after a feeding. However, it also helps them relax, which is why you’ll see moms use this move without a bib on their shoulders.
Fortunately, it’s easy enough to give yourself a hug and tune in mindfully to how you feel while doing so. However, it’s still best to retreat to a private place for this activity, as heavily crossing your arms across your chest in a meeting can make you appear defensive and insecure.
Sometimes, you need more nerve stimulation. If you have someone who can give you a bear hug while rubbing your back, fantastic. Otherwise, consider keeping a foam roller handy — rolling back and forth on it feels glorious on your spine, easing back pain while exercising your vagus nerve.
3. Breathing In, Breathing Out
Slow, deep breathing is another vagus nerve exercise you can do anywhere — even in public. Think about it: When you inhale deeply, your chest and ribcage expand, stretching all the fibers within the cavity. There are also multiple techniques you can use to find relief. Experiment with several and stick with the one that works best for you:
- Boxed breathing: Inhale for a 4-count. Hold your breath for four. Then, exhale for a 4-count, pausing at the bottom before inhaling again.
- 2-to-1 breathing: Elongate your exhales until they are roughly twice as long as your inhales.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Rest your hands on your chest and belly to feel them rise and fall with each breath.
4. Love Your Beautiful Face
Remember, your vagus wanders onto your face, and gently massaging this area also activates your parasympathetic nervous system. It’s also easier to reach by yourself than your back, and you can do so discreetly in public.
Here, a gentle touch reigns supreme. Remember, your trigeminal nerve also meets in this area, and a heavy touch can make your jaw ache — you don’t need more pain when you’re already anxious. Use your third or ring finger to gently stroke the area just in front of your ear. You might also find it helpful to rub the little flap in front of your ear or tragus.
5. Music Soothes the Panicked Beast
What do moms do while rocking their babies and rubbing their backs? They often hum. Humming, singing and chanting also stimulate your vagus nerve as it wanders down your throat and back.
Therefore, escape to somewhere private — your car is a great choice for this vagus nerve exercise — and hum. If you prefer and can go for a drive, crank the stereo and sing at the top of your lungs. Even if you can’t carry a tune, the process still works. Another idea? Download some soothing solfeggio tones and hum along. Some people believe that certain frequencies harmonize the motion of the electrons in your body’s cells, spurring deep healing.
Vagus Nerve Exercises
If you struggle with anxiety, you know how bad panic attacks can affect you. Even ongoing stress and worry can affect your ability to think clearly. Fortunately, performing vagus nerve exercises helps you tap into your body’s parasympathetic nervous system and help you relax.
Try these five vagus nerve exercises when you feel yourself losing your grip. By retreating for a few moments and soothing yourself, you can clear your mind, control your behavior and create happier, healthier stress responses.
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