A child's ability to regulate their own nervous system is limited. They need us to care for our own mental health so that we can co-regulate: comfort them, provide a calm and loving presence, and model emotional regulation.
In our previous post, we shared some suggestions on how to ease your nervous system from a state of chronic stress back into a parasympathetic state.
Now we turn our attention to the vagus nerve, a branch of the parasympathetic nervous system associated with heart rate, digestion, lung function, and more. It releases neurotransmitters that can reduce chronic inflammation and even improve memory.
In this post, we'll offer a number of ways in which you can improve vagal tone and support your nervous system.
Guided meditations focused on "self-generated positive emotions via loving-kindness" increase vagal tone. "Results suggest that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward-spiral dynamic."
Escaping a state of chronic nervous system dysregulation – depression, anxiety, or both – is rarely a quick leap. But at any point, you can choose to begin an upward spiral.
Often, the foundation is REST.
Take a moment. Breathe. (Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. Look at that, you've already started!)
Give yourself permission to cuddle up with your kids and watch a movie. (Bonus points if it gets everyone laughing! Laughter is one way to activate the vagus nerve.)
Be present with them. Connect.
And then start slowly.
Go to bed early. Make yourself a healthy meal. Go for a walk.
And then implement some of these suggestions, one at a time.
One study on heart rate variability in singers states: "Singing can be viewed as initiating the work of a vagal pump, sending relaxing waves through the choir." In addition to stimulating the vagus nerve, singing together prompts a release of oxytocin and promotes feelings of connection and wellbeing.
Blasting your favorite music and singing together can be a fantastic way to shake off a bad mood as a family. Or, if everyone is feeling anxious, singing familiar songs with your children can be the anchor that helps them find their calm.
Acute cold exposure stimulates the vagus nerve.
Even a couple hours outside every day when it's 50 degrees out "lowers sympathetic activation and causes a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity." Get outside and play!
If the weather is warm, swimming in cold water or taking a cold shower can have the same effect.
Sunshine is amazing medicine.
If direct sunshine is in short supply where you live, red light therapy is another option. There's a slew of products available these days, but it can be as simple as a red lightbulb in an inexpensive heat lamp – the kind used for baby chicks!
As mentioned in our previous article on the parasympathetic nervous system, any form of movement can be a huge help.
Mindful practices like tai chi and yoga may be more helpful still.
In this study, "12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise." There are some really wonderful books and videos available for family yoga, and even an engaging board game. Yoga incorporates breathing exercises, which we know also have modulatory effects on the nervous system.
Touch can be so healing, whether it's a professional massage or a shoulder rub from family.
One study posits increased vagal activity as the primary underlying mechanism for the increased weight gain observed in preterm infants who receive massage therapy. Other studies show that these massages even increased bone density!
A simple foot rub can go a long way towards increasing vagal modulation.
Some studies have estimated that the bacteria in our bodies may outnumber our own cells by as much as 10:1. More recent estimates say the ratio may be closer to 1:1, with a roughly equal number of human cells and bacterial residents. Science has only scraped the surface of understanding just how important the microbiome is to human health.
Many studies show a strong correlation between gut microbiota and mental health. Our vagus nerves act as information highways between the brain and gut, and healthy microbiomes are essential to a well-regulated nervous system.
You can research individual strains yourself if you're interested in taking a probiotic supplement. I personally prefer to eat a variety of probiotic foods.
Bring science into the kitchen with yogurt, kefir, and lactofermented pickles. Invite your kids to help you massage the sauerkraut or invent new flavors of kombucha. Most fermented foods are easy to make, and the potential variations are endless.
There are many other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. Zinc supplementation, eating a healthier diet, and acupuncture can all increase vagal function. Some doctors also suggest humming or gargling every day.
If you've tried the basics and gotten nowhere, the right practitioner (nutritionist, functional medicine doctor, therapist, etc.) can help you along the path of your personal upward spiral.
Wishing you ease and deep wellbeing, friends.