If you want to know how physiologists think about stress, I think it is important to give some background. In physiology, the term “vagal tone” is used to describe how well you can deal with stress. This refers to how your vagus nerve, which is both sensory and motor, works. It runs from your brain stem to part of your colon. A medical study (McLaughlin et al., 2013) says vagal tone is “a measure of cardiovascular function that helps people adapt to changes in their environment.”
The “fight or flight” response by the sympathetic nervous system is meant to make you ready for what you think is a threat. In the body, stress does not care who is stressed. Between different types of stimuli, the innervation of neural pathways is essentially the same. When your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, it is up to your vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system (vagal tone) to bring your body back to homeostasis and calm you down. This happens whether you are being chased by a lion, late for work, or taking part in cold immersion.
The more you have a strong vagal tone, the better you are able to deal with stress and get to sleep faster. Poor vagal tone means that sympathetic activity (high heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing) does not go away after a stimulus has passed. This makes you more vulnerable to the many negative effects of stress over time. People who want to improve their vagal tone and thus their quality of life should read this.
Exposure to cold
Activating the vagus nerve and cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways has been shown to happen after a short amount of time in the cold. To keep your sympathetic “fight or flight” response down, you should expose yourself to cold on a regular basis. This will make your vagus nerve do more parasympathetic activity through it. When you are done taking a shower, you can use cold water, cryotherapy, or an ice bath to cool down.
Slow and Deep breathing
Slow abdominal breathing and EMG biofeedback can help people who have prehypertension, according to a medical report (Wang et al., 2010). It is possible that slow abdominal breathing with EMG biofeedback could reduce sympathetic activity and at the same time increase vagal activity.
The conclusion to draw from this is to breathe with your diaphragm. Do this, and your stomach will move outward, like a balloon. You should take a long and slow breath out. This is the most important thing you can do to stimulate the vagus nerve and get into a calm state.
Yoga and Meditation
In a medical report (Breit et al., 2018) about the vagus nerve, they said that “since the vagal tone is linked to the ability to regulate stress responses and can be changed by breathing, its increase through meditation and yoga is likely to help people be more resilient and lessen their mood and anxiety.” Yoga also increases GABA, which is a calming neurotransmitter in your brain, because it stimulates vagal afferent nerves, which makes the parasympathetic nervous system work harder. It is a very good way to help your body deal with stress better.
According to a report (Machhada et al., 2017), elite endurance athletes have very high parasympathetic vagal tone. They also found that “indirect measures of high cardiac parasympathetic activity” are linked to better exercise capacity and lower all-cause mortality in both athletes and the general public. People who exercise regularly have been shown to be better able to deal with stress.
To ask me about vagal tone or stress management, send us a mail. I would be happy to help.