In a recent post we explored stress and the brain. It is appropriate to characterize substance use disorder as a suboptimal response to stress. A person with Substance Use Disorder experiences a hyper-stress response when they enter withdrawal. To relieve the discomfort (racing heart, sweating, nausea, etc.) they return to use. The goal is not please. It is to resolve stress.
The vagus nerve plays a key role in finding an alternative way to manage stress apart from a return to substance use. The vagus nerve is complex web that extend from the brain throughout the body. It sends messages back and forth from the brain to other organs in the body. As the brain-body messenger, it plays a crucial role in in the body's relaxation response. By learning how to activate the vagus nerve, a person in recover can counteract the stress response.
Here are some representative ways a person can activate a calming effect in the body.
Slow, deep breaths can activate the vagus nerve and stimulate the relaxation response. Focus on inhaling deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand. Hold for three or four beats and then exhale slowly through your mouth. The vagus nerve will message to the brain: All is well. Turn off the stress response.
Humming or Singing:
Both humming and singing stimulate the vagus nerve. This is because the vagus nerve is connected to the muscles in the throat and vocal cords. So, singing or even humming a calming tune signals, "If I can sing, it can't be that bad."
Gargling with cool water activates the vagus nerve. Try to gargle for 30 seconds. Make it a full, rich gargle from deep inside your throat.
Believe it not, brief exposure to cold, such as splashing your face with cold water or taking a cool shower, also stimulate the vagus nerve. When the body is exposed to cold, especially through immersion in cold water, physiological changes designed to help conserve energy and oxygen.
Laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability. Enjoying a good laugh, whether through social interactions, comedy, or even tickling activates the vagus nerve. Think of the elation who feel after a "close call" that averted an accident while driving. Laughing releases the tension.
Mindfulness and Meditation:
Practices such as mindfulness meditation activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When you meditate regularly you train your body to slow down. This activates the vagus nerve.
Positive Social Connections:
We teach the value and importance of participating in recovery community because engaging in positive social interactions and maintaining supportive relationships influence vagal nerve. There is safety in numbers. The tribe, the family, close friends signal, "All is well."
Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is particularly effective in enhancing vagal tone. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to increased activity of the vagus nerve. Activities like brisk walking, jogging, or dancing really help.
By learning how to activate the vagus nerve, a person in recovery practices alternative ways of relieving stress that do not require the use of substances. Try it. It really works.