That picture above is of the 2016 Supermoon. If you spend a few uninterrupted seconds gazing at it, you’ll most likely feel more relaxed.
While looking at the soft, red moon, the tree, and the flying birds against a blue grey sky, you may have taken a slow, deep breath. If not, and if not feeling too self conscious, do take a slow, deep breath. Just once.
It relaxes you almost on cue. Because slow, deep breathing has always done so. We are born with this ability, and the credit goes to our “wandering nerve.”
The Wandering Nerve
The “wandering nerve” helps us go into relaxation because it gets stimulated by our deep breathing. Scientists call it the Vagus nerve — the longest autonomic nerve in the human body. It starts out at the base of our brain, travels into the neck, then further through the chest and down into the abdomen. In women, it reaches as low in the abdomen as the cervix of the uterus.
The vagus controls our heart beats, gut movements, and sweating. It helps release tears, saliva and stomach acid. It causes us to gag when something touches the back of our throat, and to cough when a cotton bud tries to clear out a plug of ear wax. Women who have had complete spinal cord injury are known to experience orgasms via the vagus nerve.
Be Still My Beating Heart
When the vagus is stimulated, it brings down our heart rate. It was back in 1921 when Otto Loewi showed that stimulating the vagus nerve can make frog hearts beat slower. For this, he was given the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, albeit a little late, in 1934.
The Vagus Nerve Stimulation (in short, VNS) can be brought about by a few maneuvers that are not a drastic as what Otto Loewi did in his original experiment — cutting the hearts out of the frogs’ body and placing them in a chemical solution.
Ten simple ways we can stimulate our vagus, and thereby bring down our heart rates, are:
- deep and slow breathing
- holding breath for a few seconds
- splashing your face with chilled water
- coughing and gargling
- tensing the tummy muscles as if bearing down to evacuate the bowel
- massaging the sides of your necks — the carotid sinus area
- pressing the eyeballs
- a hearty, ‘mirthful’ bout of laughter
- meditation, especially the loving-kindness meditation
- exercise and yoga
Try any of these the next time you feel like relaxing on a short notice.