How is it possible that the way you hold your body can affect what happens in your brain? It all has to do with the vagus nerve.
Fight or Flight
Surely you’re familiar with the “flight or fight” response, otherwise known as Sympathetic Nervous System activation. In stressful events, your body releases a chemical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare you to either run away from danger or defend yourself. Your heart rate increases, blood is diverted to your extremities, and glucose is released into your blood stream to fuel your muscles.
If you’re stuck in this state for long periods of time, it affects the way your entire body functions. Headaches, muscle pain, teeth grinding/jaw clenching, IBS, infertility, and insomnia are just a few of the symptoms that can pop up after days, weeks and even years of being chronically stressed. Over time, many people develop high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, collectively referred to as Metabolic Syndrome. For others, autoimmune diseases are activated.
On the flip side of this is the “rest and digest” mechanism. When you’re in the parasympathetic state, blood flow shifts to your digestive and reproductive organs and your heartbeat slows. A whole different set of hormones are released. Digestive enzymes increase to break down your food properly, libido and fertility levels rise, and your body goes about repairing cells and tissue.
But what does all this have to do with the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, starting at the base of your skull, wrapping around the front of your neck, and innervating your internal organs. It is responsible for turning on your “rest and digest” response.
Now we’re going to shift gears to talk a little about posture. You may have heard of text neck, otherwise known as forward head posture. This is when your chin juts out in front of your torso. It is a habit most of us have picked up from spending time in front of a computer, TV, phone or tablet, driving a lot, or any activity where you focus on something in front of you. Text neck constricts the muscles at the base of your skull.
How Does It Work?
To put this all together, you may remember that the vagus nerve, which relaxes your whole body, starts at the base of the skull. When that area is tight and compressed, the nerve can’t activate. To combat this problem, simply pull your chin in and slightly down.
You might find that just that alone doesn’t immediately relax you. That’s because years and years of forward head posture have created chronically tight muscles at the base of the skull. Give them a little rub, then stroke down the sides of your neck towards your collarbone while you take a few deep breaths. Extra credit for using a little lavender essential oil. Feel calmer?
For long term results, consider acupuncture and/or massage to break up the tight muscles in your neck, and keep reminding yourself to bring your chin in when you’re on your devices.
Elizabeth Willams, LAc is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of AcuMed Spa, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.