Our brains contain primitive circuitry designed to help us react to danger. The almond-shaped amygdala is responsible for initiating a cascade of physiological changes.
Adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream to increase blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. As blood is redirected to tensing muscles and vital organs, the pupils dilate, the mouth dries, and the face turns pale.
Unfortunately, the same neural circuitry that primed our hominid ancestors to react to a lion leaping out of the brush also triggers the same response in us when we encounter stressors at work, school, or home.
More recently, the term “acute stress response” has been expanded to include additional reactions such as freezing, appeasement, and tonic immobility, in addition to the traditional “fight or flight response” Multiple conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder, are characterized by an overactive acute stress response.
Utilizing the Potential of the Vagus Nerve
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for initiating the acute stress response, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for returning the body to a resting state. The vagus nerve is the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system; it transmits information from organs to the brain and vice versa.
Through the vagus nerve, the parasympathetic nervous system can be redirected to relax the body. Stimulating the vagus nerve is analogous to pressing “Ctrl-Alt-Del” to abruptly terminate a frozen acute stress response. Although this can be accomplished with electrical stimulation devices, a less invasive method is to use one or more vagal maneuvers.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a commonly used vagal maneuver. This type of breathing involves deep diaphragmatic breaths, which stimulate the vagus nerve and can calm or reverse the stress response.
However, deep breathing is not the sole method of stimulating the vagus nerve. Among the lesser-known vagal maneuvers are the following:
- The Valsalva maneuver.
- The diving reflex.
- Trendelenburg position.
- Carotid sinus massage.
- Doing a handstand
The Valsalva maneuver requires you to exhale when your airways are blocked, such as when attempting to equalize air pressure in your ears. In addition to closing your mouth and pinching your nose while attempting to exhale, you bear down for 10 to 15 seconds as if having a bowel movement. This maneuver results in rapid changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
The diving reflex is the physiological response of the body when people immerse in cold water. It causes slowing of breathing and heart rate. This can be accomplished by entering a cold shower or bath, or by submerging your face in icy cold water for several seconds. You can also try placing an ice bag on your face for fifteen seconds.
Trendelenburg position is the medical term for lying with your feet elevated approximately 16 degrees above your head. There is evidence that combining the Trendelenberg position and the Valsalva maneuver may enhance their efficacy.
Carotid sinus massage
Carotid sinus massage. This should be carried out by a medical professional. You lie down with your head turned away from the side being massaged and your neck extended. A bundle of nerves surrounding the carotid artery just below the jaw, known as the carotid sinus, is gently compressed in circular motions for approximately 10 seconds.
Try one of these vagal maneuvers the next time you find yourself triggered and locked into a fight, flight, or freeze mode to “ctrl-alt-delete” your frozen acute stress response.