We live in stressful times
Stressful situations and a sense of loss of control can make you feel anxious and even depressed. Your reactions aren’t just confined to your mind, because however you are thinking also affects your body. Stress triggers a release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which act to increase your heart rate, speed up your breathing and shut down non-essential functions such as your digestion. This is all well and good in the short-term as it is a throwback to our prehistoric days when this “fight or flight” response could save your life – literally fight the sabre-tooth tiger or run away.
For many of us now, fight or flight has become a bad habit, exacerbated by longer-term stress situations. This ongoing response exhausts your mind-body and can lead to chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, shortness of breath, digestive issues, anxiety and depression. This exhausts our immune response too, weakening our ability to fight inflammation and infection.
The good news is that we all have the ability to reverse this cycle creating a healthier mind-body response. The answer lies in a better understanding of the vagus nerve and how its function affects our health and wellbeing.
Coming from the Latin “vagare”, to wander, this nerve originates in your brain and extends through your body affecting key organs including your heart, lungs, and digestion from your throat to your rectum.
The vagus nerve is responsible for switching off your stress response and switching on your “rest & digest” functions, stimulating relaxation, deep breathing, reduced blood pressure, and active digestion. It also plays a key role in the health of your immune system and good mental health as 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine, the “feel good” chemicals for your brain, are made in your gut.
Good vagus nerve health is called vagal tone, co-ordinating of the mind-body response as the mediator between thinking and feeling.
There are many different ways in which we can achieve good vagal tone, but one of the easiest I have found is the towel stretch.
How to do the towel stretch
Roll a large towel like a bath sheet lengthways into a big sausage. If you do not have one towel that is long enough, you can place two rolled up towels end to end.
Place the towel on the floor and lie on it, face up, so that your spine is resting along the length of the towel.
Let your arms relax on the floor beside you and straighten your legs. If you find that your lower back starts to hurt, you may find it more comfortable to bend your knees and place your feet on the floor.
Lie here for 10-15 minutes and just let your mind-body relax. It is best to set a timer so you can fully relax and maybe also listen to some relaxing music or a relaxation download.
It is important to make sure that both your head and bottom are on the towel. This is because the nerve fibres for your “rest & digest” system are clustered at the base of your skull and spine. The sustained pressure of the towel stretch on these areas helps to calm breathing and heart rate, relax muscles, switch on digestion, and stimulate the immune system.
Practised regularly the towel stretch can help strengthen vagal tone and improve your overall mind-body health.