I Thought I Just Had a Weak Bladder
I’m in my forties and hearing about a vagus nerve for the first time. I can now connect the dots to symptoms I began to experience when I was little.
I started performing in our family’s wild west show when I was about three and a half and I sang, “I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart”. My grandpa accompanied me on the guitar and did some cowboy yodeling at the end.
I loved performing and hearing the applause from the audience. But no matter how many times I went on stage I always felt so nervous and always had to pee right before I went on stage. This wasn’t very convenient because I was in my costume and our horse trailer didn’t have a bathroom. Out of necessity, I got really good and ‘squatting’ in the back of the trailer where the horses rode.
Sorry, if this is TMI (too much information) but it all makes sense now. My vagus nerve is responsible for sending the nervous signal from my brain to my bladder causing it to want to empty.
Me and my Grandpa Buss Carson
Introducing the Vagus Nerve…
Your vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions. According to Frontiers in Psychiatries website, these include control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. It establishes one of the connections between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. It also sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain via afferent fibers.
The brain send messages and commands down the vagus nerve to the organs
According to Dr Steffen Fetzer, “The autonomic nervous system is made up of two divisions. The sympathetic nervous system is about stimulating our body into action; often called the ‘fight or flight’ response. By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system decreases breathing and heart rate and increases digestion. It helps us to relax – to ‘rest and digest’. The sensitive vagus nerve picks up information from the body (eg from the lungs, liver, intestines and heart) and sends it to the brain for analysis and interpretation. Then the brain sends messages and commands back down to the organs.
My Nervous System Overload
I experienced an emotional breakdown in December of 2019. It was as if the connection between my brain and my digestive system via my vagus nerve became hard wired. As a result of some stressful experiences, my stress reserve tank was on empty and I developed an inflamed digestive track with intense abdominal pressure. I worked with a homeopathic chiropractor to heal my gut and decrease inflammation. Here is a link to the recipes I enjoy to get back on track.
Understanding the vagus nerve explains how so much of my digestive distress was caused by thoughts in my brain. If the vagus nerve is responsible for negative reactions throughout my body then common sense suggests it’s responsible for positive ones too!
If the vagus nerve is responsible for negative reactions throughout my body then common sense suggests it’s responsible for positive ones too!
My Chronic State of Fight-or-Flight
If you’re like me then you’ve probably discovered you have a vivid imagination. Because our brains are always going and our senses are constantly collecting data, this can make us more vulnerable to feeling stressed and anxious.
Our brains are hard-wired to look out for danger. When it perceives a dangerous threat, it sounds our internal alarm. Our body responds with a vital shot of adrenaline so we can be prepared for any immediate action. What I painfully discovered is that my body was in a constant state of fight or flight and I wasn’t able to relax. My poor vagus nerve was on overdrive.
I’ve been working tirelessly to better understand how to come out of this chronic state. I have found the key is to practicing mindfulness, cleaning up my diet, and detoxing my home. And most importantly, I’m working with my vagus nerve to trigger a relaxation response throughout my body. This is also referred to as increasing my vegal tone.
Here’s the Science…
Have you ever heard of “fight or flight?” When we experience sudden, high stress, we activate our fight or flight response, getting the body ready to either flee the scene or fight. In our everyday experience of stress, there is no place to run or hide, and the stressful situation is not one that can easily be fought off. Most of us are not meeting tigers in the street!
During periods of chronic high stress, the body stays in high gear, with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol coursing through the body. This creates wear and tear on the body and mind, and over time can create a multitude of health problems such as chronic pain, anxiety, mood swings, gut inflammation and so many more.
The good news is that our bodies contain their own superpower that can assist with decreasing our fight or flight response.
Our vagus nerve system acts to counterbalance the fight or flight system and can trigger a relaxation response in our body. It is one of the cranial nerves that connect the brain to the body. The vagus nerve is a major part of how our bodies and brains function; without it, our bodies wouldn’t be able to do basic tasks, and by stimulating it we can receive powerful health benefits.
Harness the Power of Your Own Body to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Here’s some great information taken from an article by Kat Nicholls…
Counsellor Fiona Austin explains, “Since the vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, when it gets stimulated it increases what is known as vagal tone. This is slowing our heart rate and our breathing and calming our nervous system down. In 2010, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found a positive correlation between a high vagal tone and positive emotions and overall good health.”
In 2010, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found a positive correlation between a high vagal tone and positive emotions and overall good health.
And the best part? We can stimulate our vagus nerve and help ourselves move out of a stressed and anxious state. Here’s how.
1. Breathe deep
Breathing exercises are often recommended when it comes to stress and anxiety, and here’s another great reason to give it a try. When we breathe deep and slow from our abdomen, we stimulate the vagus nerve. Try breathing out for longer than you breathe in as this helps to activate our parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response).
Loving kindness meditations especially are thought to stimulate the vagus nerve, helping you to feel more relaxed and connected.
2. Sing it out
The vagus nerve runs up our necks, so when we engage our vocal cords we can give it a gentle nudge. Singing can do this and improve our overall well being, so why not make a playlist of your favorite sing-along songs?
Not a singer? Try humming or gargling water instead.
Massaging any part of the body is great for rest and relaxation, but it’s thought that massaging the feet in particular can help stimulate the vagus nerve. Try self-massage, ask a partner or treat yourself to a reflexology session and see how you feel. You can also gently massage your neck, shoulders and behind your ears for more direct contact with the vagus nerve.
4. Cold water immersion
Exposing yourself to the cold may not sound relaxing, but as well as triggering our relaxation response, it’s thought to reduce inflammation in the body. Try putting your face in some cold water or, if you’re feeling brave, having a cold shower. You might want to start with short exposures and build up, if you find it helpful.
Most of us know that exercise prompts our body to release ‘feel good’ hormones, but it turns out it also stimulates the vagus nerve. The trick here is to find a movement you enjoy so that it feels fun, and not a chore. Experiment with different exercises and see what feels good to you, we’re big advocates for dancing around your living room to your favourite songs for the ultimate mood boost.
6. Listen to ASMR
Do you ever get those ‘brain tingles’ when you hear certain sounds? This is ASMR and it can bring about a pleasant sense of calm and relaxation.
“Our brains are wired to activate our survival instincts through certain sounds like loud voices, crashing, and bangs. Perhaps ASMR facilitates the opposite, by calming the nervous system.” Says psychotherapist Nicola Vanlint.
7. Connect with others
Isolation can exacerbate stress as we feel alone in our struggles. Connecting with others and feeling a sense of belonging is a fantastic way to gain perspective and calm our nervous system down. Call a friend, arrange a meet-up with family or reach out to colleagues to reignite that sense of connection.
As well as stimulating the vagus nerve, laughter can help lower blood pressure and improve mood. Embrace your silly side, find joy in the little things and laugh with loved ones often to experience the brilliant benefits.
I never would’ve imagined I would actually have to practice breathing.
Let’s Talk a Little More About Breathing
I never would’ve imagined I would actually have to practice breathing. I mean, it’s something we do 24/7 and never give a second thought to. Throughout my journey of healing I came to realize I was terrible at breathing. As soon as I was in a stressful situation or would start to feel anxiety I would hold my breath. At the time I needed oxygen the most, I was actually making the situation worse. I mistakenly thought holding my breath would somehow make the situation go away or alleviate the threat.
Additionally, holding my breath would speed up my heart rate even more. When I start feeling anxious, I can feel the muscles in my neck start to contract. This gives the false sensation that I’m having difficulty breathing.
A Little More Science…
I love this explanation from Megan Horeis. One of the main ways that you can stimulate the healthy function of the vagus nerve is through deep, slow belly breathing. You can learn to use breathing exercises to shift your focus away from stress or pain. The human mind processes one thing at a time. If you focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you’re not focused on the stressor.
The moment we anticipate stress in any form, most of us tend to stop breathing and hold our breath. Breath holding activates the fight/flight/freeze response; it tends to increase the sensation of pain, stiffness, anxiety, or fear. To practice deep breathing inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth remember to:
- Breathe more slowly (aim for six breaths per minute).
- Breathe more deeply, from the belly.
- Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale.
- Exhale longer than you inhale. It’s the exhale that triggers the relaxation response.
Massaging the Tension Out of My Vagus Nerve
The most effective method I use for relaxing my vagus nerve at the end of the day is massage. I lay down on my side on my blue yoga mat and use an electric massage wand. I start down on my outer thigh above my knee and slowly move my way up to my waist. Then I massage the small of my back and then try to get the muscles up my spine and under my shoulder blades. Then I really dig in on my shoulders and go up my neck in between my ear and my spine. From what I can tell, this is the most direct access to my vagus nerve.
The vibration of the wand kinda makes my brain jiggle. This is actually a really good sensation because it forces my awareness to my body. I get out of my head and imagination and focus on the massaging sensation.
I repeat the same massage route on my opposite side. Then I do some simple yoga stretches to release the tension in my neck and shoulders. By the end I feel much more relaxed and ready for bed. I do this every night to create consistency and predictability for my sleep.
I don’t know about you, but I feel so relieved to know there is an explainable reason why I have to use the bathroom so many times when I’m feeling nervous. I’ve learned to not drink any liquids leading up to a scheduled event when I know I will be ‘on stage’ to minimize it as much as I can. But knowing and understanding more about the vagus nerve has empowered me to pay more attention to it.
Through intentional breathing, mindfulness and vagus nerve massage, I’ve been able to experience a greater sense of relaxation and peace. I can also feel my stress reserve tank filling back up to prepare me for the next unforeseen challenge.