We have all felt it, tight shoulders, popping joints, headaches, heartburn, low libido, insomnia... and those are just the less severe ways long-term exposure to stress can affect the body. One reason stress causes so many physical ailments and mental health disorders is that your body is too busy defending itself from danger to allocate its resources to the rest of your body so that you can heal and replenish.
When we perceive danger (real or not) our body does its job by reacting in ways meant to stay alive and keep us safe; so the autonomic nervous system (ANS) jumps into action even when you don't have or make the time to process a perceived threat. The stimulation/survival aspect is a function of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the calming part is mediated through the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The vagus nerve is like the translator/conductor between all of these systems, making it the core focus when learning to calm one's self during heightened stress and anxiety -(I am going to come back to the vagus nerve in a bit)
Physical threats can be viruses, allergens, toxins, people, spiders, clowns... hey I don't know your life. Some of the threats that some people don't give credit to can be worse than all of these above and they are repressed fears based on traumatic experiences, Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they aren't ever-present. These threats are processed in almost exactly the same way as physical ones and cause an inflammatory response that forms the basis for chronic mental and physical disease when left untreated for long periods of time. Examples of mental threats are memories, negative thoughts, suppressions, repressions, insecurities, and feelings of a lack of purpose.
Now we shouldn't be mad at our bodies for reacting the way they do, after all, they are carrying the brunt of the labor. We should, instead learn to listen to our bodies, and care and love them while being thankful they have gotten us this far.
Many people are unaware that the body produces more histamines (related to allergies) and becomes inflamed (bloating, muscle pain, swollen joints) when we are feeling extra stress. Most of the time we will want to run straight for the nasal spray, antihistamine, and pain relievers because why would this have anything to do with being overworked, not getting enough sleep, or constant arguments with our spouse?.... right? Well, all of those things will only be temporary fixes if we ignore our needs for safety and security.
Stimulate The Vagus Nerve to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body; it is why your heart races and your stomach wrenches when you sense a threat and why your breathing slows and your body relaxes when friends and loved ones offer you support or give you a gentle hug. The vagus nerve is the key player in the autonomic nervous system controlling your internal organs.
There are many ways to stimulate this giant nerve that can help to immediately reduce stress such as deep breathing or breath work, laughing, singing, exercising, dancing, talking to friends or people who make you feel safe, cold water emersion (try it!), loving-kindness meditation, and massage.
There was a time in my life when it felt like at some point I was going to need to live inside a bubble due to so many complications impeding my physical and mental wellness. I had a long history of trauma and was actively living in a toxic environment but I thought my body was just failing me. Eventually, I was able to get my body well enough to leave the toxic environment, get into some intensive therapy, and above all I began putting my own needs above anyone and anything else.
Nowadays I am a fully licensed therapist working in private practice, happy, and healthy, and I will do everything to prioritize the minimization of stress. I changed my goal in life from running a huge clinic and making more money to seeing fewer clients and being so much happier.