How Can I Improve My Mental and Emotional Health?

by Health, Psychology

Mcany of us have heard of the term ‘fight or flight’ but not many of us have heard of the term ‘rest and heal’.

So how do we ‘rest and heal’ and is it really that simple? Well yes it is simple. And we can do that by training our Vagus nerve.

“What the hell is that?” I hear you cry. 

Well, Vagus means ‘wandering’ in Latin, as the nerve travels from the brain all the way down to the digestive system. While we refer to it as ‘the vagus nerve,’ there are actually two nerves, one on the left and one on the right side of your body. They help to control many bodily functions such as blood pressure, the gag reflex, sweating, plus allow the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of your gut.

So quite a few functions! But overall it greatly affects your mental and physical health.

But before I go into how this nerve can affect your mental and emotional state, you need to have a basic understanding of the 2 nervous systems in the body which make the central nervous system. One is the sympathetic nervous system and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Ever get a dry mouth when you’re anxious? Thats your sympathetic nervous system working by inhibiting salivation. Ever wondered why your heart rate gets reduced by breathing deeply and calmly? Thats your sympathetic nervous system in control. Hence the term ‘fight or flight’ for the sympathetic nervous system and ‘rest and digest’ for the parasympathetic. Essentially, your sympathetic nervous system is where you want to be the majority of the time, to allow your body to recover and repair and basically to function normally.

Unfortunately too many of us are working from the sympathetic nervous system for most of the day, which leads to all sorts of issues. Being very snappy for no reason, confrontational even, is a sign you are in a sympathetic-dominant state. 

A third nervous system has been discovered which is thought of as a ‘social engagement’ nervous system response. If you are emotionally healthy, in what’s perceived as a non-stressful situation, you are in a state which polyvagal theory refers to as ‘connection’. This means you sleep well. 

You don’t over- or undereat. Your immune system is functioning well. Your body is calm, and you are able to relate to others on an emotional level. 

You feel great!

But, if your body senses a threat, it may freeze and look for ‘danger’ around you. It raises the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body. 

You feel anxious, angry, or afraid.

You start sweating, your heart rate increases, your digestion slows down, and your blood vessels constrict. You may even feel tension or pain. 

You may feel like running away. 

Particularly if you’ve had a letter from the ‘tax man’, or you’ve just had a minor altercation with someone in the car park.

Another way your body may react to stress is by shutting down or freezing. If your body feels real danger or senses that it can’t escape, the parasympathetic nervous system may kick in to create a shutdown. 

You may feel hopeless, numbness, shame, a sense of feeling trapped, disconnected. You may disassociate. You may feel nauseous, experience a decrease in your immune response, sexual desire, and sensation of pain. Your digestive system slows down, and you have difficulty speaking.

These experiences of flight-or-fight or shutdown are supposed to be short events. A healthy nervous system and the vagal nerve are supposed to ‘shake off’ this stress and bounce back to a calm, safe, and connected state. 

However, people who are experiencing poor vagal tone due to childhood abuse, trauma at any age, or other factors, are experiencing this response constantly. When fight-or-flight or shutdown becomes a chronic state, that’s a major problem. It increases the risk of both mental and physical health issues.

So how does good vagal tone affect our bodies?

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Lowers heart rate
  • Manages stress and anxiety
  • Regulates mood
  • Decreases inflammation or pain
  • Delivers information between the brain and the gut
  • Provides sensory information from the throat, lungs, and heart
  • Regulates swallowing
  • Regulates speech

But – and this is important – Your vagus nerve doesn’t have to be damaged to not function correctly. Symptoms of poor vagal tone even without nerve damage may include:

  • Anxiety and or/depression
  • Poor emotional regulation
  • Lowered attention span
  • High stress
  • Being in ‘flight-or-fight’ mode constantly
  • Increased inflammation 
  • Pain

Chronic stress and poor sleep, childhood trauma, head injuries (even a seemingly minor bump to the head), poor breathing – yes, that’s a thing – chronic infections and high toxic load such as polluted air, tap water, and processed foods, are just a few of the things that can affect your vagal tone.

So now you’re thinking, a few of those things apply to me, what can I do to ‘test’ whether I do have poor vagal tone?

  1. Test your pupils – get someone to shine a light on your eye. The pupil needs to constrict for at least 10 seconds then dilate. If it takes less than 10 seconds to do this or doesn’t constrict at all, you probably have poor vagal tone.
  2. Heart rate variability – some smart watches measure this stat and it’s a good indicator of how much stress you are under. There should be a high variance on a regular basis (say around/over 60).
  3. Blood Pressure – your systolic pressure (the one on top) should be between 100-140 and your diastolic should be 70-90. If these measurements are repeatedly lower or higher than these ranges, this is an indication you have poor vagal tone.
  4. Going dizzy when moving quickly from a sitting/laying position to standing (also known as orthostatic hypertension), resulting in dizziness or lack of balance.

Your vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the body and is responsible for many important functions, including regulating your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, breathing, and emotional state. If you experience some of the symptoms noted above, it may mean that you have a poor vagal tone, and your vagus nerve needs some attention. 

Your health can really be improved just by training this one thing, so no excuses!

Email me to discuss how we can improve your health and get you feeling great.