Down-Regulate Your Nervous System: 5 Things You Can Do Right Now for Relief

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Yoga and wellness communities are buzzing about the nervous system, trauma, and the vagus nerve these days. Thankfully, neuroscience and psychology experts are recognizing that healing our body systems and reactions is essential to feeling peaceful, joyful, and centered. And even more thankfully, we actually have the ability to volitionally affect the nervous system.

“Down-regulation” occurs when we are able to take ourselves out of a stress response (often called fight-flight or freeze) and move into a more calm and peaceful place (sometimes referred to as rest-and-digest). Mastering this skill is key to finding moments of peace, joy, happiness, and relief when our world seems chaotic. And lucky for us, it’s fairly simple to do - the difficult part is noticing when we are amped up and remembering to use this super-power to calm ourselves down. So here are a few simple ways to settle your system throughout your day.

Look around

Thirty or even ten years ago, this may not have been my first suggestion. But with most of us on computers or devices so often, it becomes one of the easiest things to do to help us feel better. When we are in a stress response, our eyes are fixed and focused. The latest research is showing that fixing and focusing the eyes for extended periods can also create a stress response in the body. So set break-reminders on your computer or phone. Look up and out into the distance. Soften your gaze and widen your visual field. Then slowly look to the left and all the way behind you. Then look to the right and all the way behind you. This simple exercise not only stimulates the vagus (peace) nerve by widening your visual field, but it adds a second relaxing element by making sure your surroundings are safe. Don’t worry: this works on a physiological level even if you know in your logical mind that you’re safe without having to check your back.

Take 5 deep breaths with a focused exhalation

Breathing deeply and noticing your breathing brings you into the present moment. It stops the busy mind for a bit. And exhaling creates a physiological response of down-regulation. The heart beat and blood pressure slightly lower with every exhalation (they slightly raise with each inhalation, which is also necessary!). So if you are aiming to relax your system a little bit more, simply exhale slightly longer than when you inhale. Even if it’s only one count longer than your inhalation, or if you only do it a few times, the positive down-regulation effects will happen. Adding in a sigh as you exhale can also help to lengthen that breath and let out extra tension at the same time.

Smile and be grateful

Smiling creates a relaxation response. Even fake smiles or internal smiles. And gratitude helps authenticate that smile. Calm joy is our naturally relaxed state, and we really can “fake it ‘til we make it”. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and other notable works, puts his emphasis on something called “positive neuroplasticity”. Research shows that we can actually help rewire our brains to default to a happier response to stress by strengthening the neural pathways that create that calm joy feeling. The more we practice, the stronger those impulses get. A quick pause to smile and be thankful is a simple way to do that.

Sing, hum, or chant

Have you ever noticed how when you’re in the car or the shower and singing along with music you love, you automatically feel good? The vagus nerve gets activated when our vocal cords are vibrating. So belt out your favorite song, hum along to the radio, or chant a couple of OMs. Then see what your tension level is like when you are finished. Singing, humming, or chanting also create longer exhalations so you get two hacks for the price of one. The best part is that it makes zero difference what you sound like - you can finally own your inner musician and feel entitled to it! If someone looks at you cross-eyed, just tell your coworkers or family that you’re doing self-care. In fact, sing that line to them.

Laugh heartily. Or cry

Pumping the diaphragm is another sure-fire way to recruit the vagus nerve. Whenever we laugh (or cry), the diaphragm automatically pumps and gives the nervous system some good medicine. It even works if we “fake laugh”, which is part of the reason the “Laughing yoga” trend caught on so well. You laugh, and you feel better. Conversely, if you are stressed to the max and you’re one of those people that cries from overwhelm, be grateful! Your body is leading you down another route to down-regulate and feel better. If you’re a yogi who’s familiar with kapalbhati breath (breath of fire), and you are feeling just too serious to laugh, you can create a similar effect with the pumping action that this breath technique provides.
About the Author

Lisa West

Lisa West is a physical therapist, bodyworker, writer, and yoga teacher living in Ventura, CA. She specializes in helping people get into and fall in love with their bodies, and has an especially keen interest in finding ways to soothe the nervous system so we can find more peace and welcome ourselves home. Lisa is the author of "Follow the Feeling: A Roadmap to Emotional Freedom", available on Amazon or through her website.


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