Anxiety and worry often get a bad rap for being “just in your head,” but research affirms that symptoms of anxiety reside in our body as well. To address worry or fear in our head without taking into consideration how it affects the body, would be missing half the issue. The body and the brain communicate via the nervous system and the state of our nervous system influences how we see, act, and navigate our way through life. Anxiety helps our body to contend with real threats, but it can get out of hand when stress and worry become chronic.
A critical part of how our body responds to perceived threat is through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve starts at the base of the brain and branches down through the heart, lungs, digestive tract, through the larynx and pharynx, diaphragm, and into the abdomen. This is the main mind-body highway. The vagus nerve regulates how much oxygen is needed in the case of potential threat, and once the threat has dissipated, each exhale can reset the body back to a state of calm. Although this is all done automatically, it is interesting to note that the vagus nerve can be stimulated and strengthened in its ability to calm us after, and even during stressful events. Practices like humming, singing, and even gargling are a few less obvious ways to strengthen this nerve; however, an easier and often overlooked tool is breathing. Deep breathing specifically, is one of the most effective techniques to reset the body when it gets thrown into a stressed state. When we feel anxious we tend to take slow inhales and rapid exhales. Our breathing becomes shallow. Exhaling slowly reminds our vagus nerve to start calming the system, and a calm nervous system is the only way our brain can start to make sense of actual threat vs. imagined threat.
There are many ways to help calm the body and self-regulate. Mindfulness-based interventions reduce stress and help treat a range of symptoms and concerns. The four most commonly recognized therapy models that incorporate mindfulness practices are as follows:
- MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction program) founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to integrate Buddhist principles of mindfulness in the 70’s
- DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) founded by Marsha Linehan also in the 70’s incorporates Western and Eastern spiritual influences.
- ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) designed by Steven Hayes, Kelly Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl in the 80’s also incorporates Eastern techniques.
- MCBT (Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ) Kabat-Zinn began the process of incorporating mindfulness in CBT in the early 2000’s
Most therapeutic modalities have an extensive understanding of the importance of calming your nervous system in order to problem solve and make sense of whatever is going on in your world.
It’s helpful to know that calming the vagus nerve after chronic stress, can often be challenging to do alone. We are social creatures and we often act as emotional regulators for each other – at times this result is more effective than even medication. When our body is in a state of alarm, the higher regions of our brain go off-line. This makes it nearly impossible to problem solve. Seemingly mundane things can feel like life or death situations. Our nervous system is seeking safety – thus friendly faces and the support from others can prove helpful in reassuring us that a threat has passed. This is called co-regulation. Your ventral vagus circuit starts to pick up on all the cues of safety— a familiar face or a calm tone of voice helps our defense system to quiet down. Our body can then enter a state of calm. Shifting from a distressed physical state to a calm regulated state, enables us to access the area of the brain where problem solving occurs and where healing begins.