Viva Las Vagus Nerve.
You ever heard of the vagus nerve? No, nor had I until a few weeks ago but since learning how stimulating – or ‘toning’ – it could reduce stress levels then it has fascinated me.
Oh, there was a noticeable could in that last paragraph … is our writer (could our writer be …) hedging his bets? And to a certain extent I am because, although there is a lot of medical evidence out there which supports the idea of vagus nerve tickling leading logically onto stress relief I can’t find any of it published online by our wonderful NHS, although they do talk about the subject in the treatment of depression which is at least in the right ballpark.
That said, the science does seem to make sense and the techniques often quoted as being good for stimulation tend to be activities, like deep breathing, which are good for us anyway, so there’s little risk in trying it … and having got that never-ending disclaimer out the way, let’s move on to the subject itself.
The vagus nerve, or ‘wandering nerve’, spreads around the body connecting many of our important organs. The theory goes that regular toning of it will encourage our body not only to relax faster after stress but also lower our blood pressure and heart rate – all good stuff, especially in a job like ours. And those activities? Go on Google and you will discover various ways thought to encourage this pampering, some of which you may do already, but I’m going to concentrate on three areas which you might not do at the moment but which could reasonably be built into your busy police officer lifestyle. We’re going to start with …
Slow, Deep, Diaphragmatic Breathing.
This is the easiest technique available for the working Bobby and useful in that you can deploy it both as a quick fix while at work when things are going a bit wrong but also at home when you have more time to indulge yourself … darkened room, a bit of Al Green on the stereo, some scented candles …
If you go on YouTube you will find various demonstration of how to do diaphragmatic breathing but the basic principles are as follows.
Make yourself comfortable – sitting down is good with your feet resting flat on the floor. Or you can lay on your back. Please don’t do this while driving … on your back or otherwise.
Close your eyes and take notice of your breathing while deliberately slowing it down.
When you have calmed your breathing, inhale slowly through your nose so that it expands your TUMMY as opposed to your chest as would happen normally.
Exhale slowly through your mouth but taking longer than you did to inhale.
And repeat …
There is various advice about how long you should take breathing in and out but, in simple terms, do it slow and controlled with the exhale taking longer than the inhale, while always making sure that you are inflating the tummy as opposed to the chest. Another variation is breathing in slowly for four seconds, holding your breath for four and then breathing out slowly for four. If something is bugging you then it will, of course, try to break in on your breathing – cast it out and instead tune into that sensation of the air passing around your body. I find that alternating between both breathing methods helps me concentrate more. Get it right and it’s wonderful but be aware that you may be a little lightheaded when you finish – don’t stand up too quickly or you may have a comic stumble. As I say you can do it at work – ‘quiet rooms’ are being set aside for this type of thing at nicks all over the country (or the disabled toilet can also give you some privacy if not a lot of comfort) and at home; I find ten minutes of this laying on my back fantastic. It also works well at bedtime or if I wake up in the night.
Yep! But not just singing – chanting, humming and even gargling are thought to stimulate the vagus nerve … perhaps we’re just stick with the singing for the moment.
How it works, why it works … I’m sure the science is both complex and impressive … but the important thing is that it does indeed appear to work, which is why you never see an unhappy face in one of those rock choirs that are springing up all around the country. Fed up after your latest ghastly shift at work? Stick your favourite power ballad playlist on in the car while driving home and sing your head off – something else that’s fantastic …
Exposure To Cold.
Yes, you did read that right. Again, I don’t intend to go into the science of the matter, and I can’t find anything on a NHS websites which support the notion, but regular exposure to cold is thought to stimulate the vagus nerve so why not give it a go … after, of course, taking any relevant advice from your doctor if you have an underlining health issue while might increase your chances of dropping down dead … please don’t drop down dead. Dipping your face into cold water may provide a gentle introduction for this technique. From there, every time you have a shower, switch the hot water to cold towards the end, slowly building up the time you wallow in the cold. It can be a bit of a shocker I discovered, especially before a February Early Turn, so do it carefully, spraying your legs and then your arms before moving up to your chest, back and HEAD …! and if in doubt stop. Aim to do it for around thirty seconds the first few times and then build yourself up to a minute. Not so fantastic … a little eye-popping … but probably good for you as long as you don’t go silly …
Depending on the research you read, laughing and socialising, general exercise and making sure you have sufficient omega 3 in your diet are all also thought to tone the vagus nerve, but hopefully your life is full of these glorious things anyway. If you are feeling adventurous then you can also try some meditation, perhaps using any one of those thousands of apps which are available these days, or even treat yourself to a massage.
Do I think this vagus nerve stuff logical? Yes, I should think so. It seems to tie in nicely with other activities renowned for their stress-busting qualities so why not try out these three easy techniques each day and see how you get on?
Me? I’m off to find my power ballads CD and loosen up my vocal cords … ‘I wanna know what love is …!’