Everyone has their own particulars- mine involves a hammock and a pillow and a book and a nap- but at the heart of the R&R idea is one particular body structure- the Vagus Nerve.
Our fight-or-flight stress response, called the Sympathetic Nervous System, has a clear headquarters- it's called the HPA axis, and it's responsible for creating and regulating all our reactions to stress. (Btw, it's our culture-informed thinking that distinguishes between "good" and "bad" stress. To our HPA axis, it's all the same stress. Survival is an extraordinarily basic need, so a phone beep is the same as a tiger.)
On the flip side our Parasympathetic Nervous System, the one responsible for actually opposing the stress response and allowing us to, you know, live, is spread out all over the body. There's no HQ because we were designed to live in this state most of the time, so it's the default position.
Take that in for a second. The PNS should be our default.
But which system are your more familiar with? Right. Fight or flight. We live in fight or flight, and it takes practice to get back to the rest and restore state. It's kinda backwards, but this is the world we have created. We have to make do.
Even though there's no specific HQ for the R&R, the Vagus Nerve comes closest to filling that role. And guess what- you can exercise your Vagus! This means you can strengthen your ability to get back into (and stay in) your R&R state whenever stress bumps you out, because we know it will.
R&R= Rest and Restore
The Vagus in involved with things like speech, thyroid function, digestion, blood pressure, and elimination. This means there's lots of places we can impact it, and lots of places for things to go wrong.
The amazing thing about the Vagus is that when it's activated, things RELAX. From your pupils (think: tunnel vision when scared) to your voice (think how high pitched some people get when angry) to your gut (stress constipation is very common), it's easy to see how getting these structures to relax and move properly is important.
Much of your Vagus Nerve is in your abdomen, and your abdomen is cram-jam full (yes, that's a Mary Berry line! #gbbo) of stuff. Solid organs held in place by nets of connective tissue, hollow organs expanding and contracting, miles of intestines squashed in by core muscles, not to mention bony cages and girdles and a spine built like a stack of teacups.
Getting as much of that as aligned and functioning properly as possible is essential to the Vagus having room to activate. It can get pinched and turned off just like any other nerve.
Exercise #1- Stack Your Ribs and Hips
Try this. Lie on your back and find the bony markers in your pelvis- 2 hip points, and a pubic symphsis down front in the center, south of your belly button.
(Assorted belly-ness is not the point here, the bony points are, and may I just state for the record size is not an indicator of health, nor is health an indicator of value. Exit soapbox.)
So these 3 bony markers, right, they need to be parallel to the floor. Do a little tilting forward and back to find that parallel. This is called a neutral pelvis.
Next, your ribs are probably arching up towards the ceiling. Bring them down to the floor, so the upper back is relaxed down and you feel a flatness across the shoulder blades, not a pinching or winging position. This is a neutral rib cage.
Now try these 2 positions sitting, and then standing. Neutral pelvis is now perpendicular to the floor (straight up and down, aka 90 degrees to the floor), and the ribs are down over the hips, not popped forward in fake "good" posture.
Exercise #2- Breathe With Your Lungs
(Now, breathing practices are different, and have their own purposes. I'm talking about your daily, not-really-thinking-about-it breathing fright now.)
Since your belly is so crammed with stuff, it's all held in place by an intra-abdominal pressure created by your core muscles. (This is why evisceration is so messy, but maybe just take my word for it.) When you just use your belly to breathe, it messes with this pressure and can lead to problems like pelvic floor issues, hernias, or even reflux.
Breathing with your chest is difficult, since the breastbone doesn't actually expand. This means your breaths will be shallow, making you breathe more often, and can create anxiety responses because of the pressures on your upper back spinal nerves.
But because most of us walk around thrusting our chests out in fake good posture (fix this with Exercise #1 pleasepleaseplease), we HAVE to belly and chest breathe since the ribs have nowhere to go.
Take a belt, an exercise band, or your hands and wrap them around your rib cage so you feel the front, back, and sides of the bones. Slowly take a breath in, and feel for 360 degrees of rib cage expanding, all the way around. Feel tension increase in what you have wrapped around your torso as you inhale and expand the ribs, and feel that tension decrease as you exhale and close the ribs. Relax your shoulders and your belly, it's all ribs.
This might seem simple and not worth the effort of trying, but I challenge you here and now. By popping your ribs forward, you've probably lost a lot of the muscles in and around your ribs, and the points where the ribs meet your spine are probably really stiff and inflexible. This is hard.
It takes practice to get all this moving again, but once you do your ribs can buffer the breathing pressures they were designed for, easing the load on your abdomen and upper back. This lets the pressure on your Vagus nerve normalize as well.
Exercise #3- Tone Practice
Here is a list of small practices you can work into your day:
- Chill your eyes, with cold fingers, cold water, or cold eye packs
- Belly laugh
- Do breathing practices
- Do yoga, tai chi, and chi gong
- Get a massage and acupuncture
- Taste bitter flavors
- Get more sunlight
- Have healthy, supportive relationships
These ideas will improve the tone of your Vagus nerve. What does this look like? Well, after you do experience stress, you'll:
- Process information faster
- Concentrate better
- Have more appropriate and effective responses
- Return to resting state faster
And good Vagal tone is associated with:
- good blood sugar regulation
- lower rates of diabetes, stroke, CV disease
- better mood
- less anxiety
- more stress resilience
- greater closeness to others and altruism
It's all good in my book! Want more particulars? Here's how to work with me directly