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Could the key to managing stress be within you all along?

A big pitch, dealing with conflict in your team, planning for the year ahead, fitting in social plans, finding 15 minutes to grab some lunch... being a leader can be tough and juggling mountains of priorities can lead to overwhelm.

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So how do you deal with it? Is it a battle to keep your fight or flight instinct under control? Do you feel on constant high alert?

When we’re in a loop of chronic high stress we get waves of adrenaline and cortisol rushing through our bodies and over a sustained period of time it can lead to anxiety, depression, gut problems and chronic pain.

You probably know that when you’re under stress you don’t perform at our best. But how aware are you of the potential of your nervous system to help you deal with that stress?

The impact of the vagus nerve system

The vagus nerve is incredibly powerful and can become a key part of our stress management tool kit.

The vagal system runs from around the diaphragm to the brain stem and crosses over nerves in the lungs, neck, throat, and eye.

It’s a system that counterbalances the fight or flight system and can trigger relaxation. By understanding how we can stimulate and reset this nerve we can learn to handle stress more efficiently and become more resilient to conflict and uncertainty.

How to get the vagus nerve working for you

Wouldn’t it be great if the next time you’re under pressure you could re-centre yourself with ease? Or even better if you could achieve an ongoing equilibrium that meant you didn’t ever reach that pressure cooking feeling?

The great thing about the vagus nerve is the number of simple ways you can learn to stimulate it to increase your sense of calm, lucidity, and ability to deal with challenging situations.

Try these simple activities to get to know your vagus system:

Acknowledge how your body feels

When was the last time you took a step back and thought about how your body really feels? Being aware of how you feel when you’re stressed and when you’re calm will help you recognise when you need to take action. Try and pay attention to the sensations you feel to get an understanding of your body’s ‘baseline’. Changes in your stance, if you feel tense in certain areas, or habitual movements for example.

Focus on your breathing

A key way to focus and stimulate the vagus nerve is through your breathing. There’s a reason a commentator at a big game will say ‘the crowd are holding their breath’, when we anticipate stress most of us will instinctively hold our breath, it’s part of the fight or flight response, but it usually makes us feel more anxious, fearful, and on edge.

Through deep, slow breathing you can shift the focus away from stress, anxiety, and even pain. To practice deep breathing:

  • Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
  • Focus on slowing your breathing down – a guide is six breaths per minute
  • Concentrate on breathing from your stomach – try to widen your ribcage and belly as you inhale
  • Exhale for a couple of seconds longer than you inhale

Activate the connection from your gut to your brain

Many people find physical activation of the vagus nerve by tapping different areas of the abdomen helpful. This video is a great introduction to this technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUx5kLFyx-M

Immerse your face in cold water

Not one for the faint-hearted, or just before a big presentation, but immersing your face from your forehead to about halfway down your cheeks can stimulate the vagus nerve, decrease heart rate, and help to switch on your immune system.

Laugh out loud

There is truth in laughter being the best medicine. It’s a simple activity but a good, genuine laugh can stimulate the vagus nerve and lift your mood.

Make it a habit

As with many of the things that help us the most, learning to harness the power of your vagus system takes a bit of practice, but it’s an incredible tool to have in your locker. The ability to slow things down when you’re under the pressure, the capacity to take a step back when you’re facing overwhelm, it will help you make better decisions and lead your team with renewed focus and drive.