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Mental health disorders and anxiety were once taboo topics, but after our journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the cost-of-living crisis – talking about the way we feel is something many of us have become familiar with.
For many, the emotional consequences of the pandemic are still with them. Some of the common stressors that affected individuals during the pandemic included the fear of becoming seriously ill or even dying from COVID-19, isolation from loved ones and friends, loss of employment, increased financial strain and much more.
For those whose loved ones died during this time, an unhealed wound remains. Our negative feelings were exacerbated by imposed restrictions that continued to fuel already heightened feelings of shock, anger, and sadness. Memories of loss are ring-fenced with rules and regulations regarding how loved ones could be mourned.
As restrictions were eased, people began to lift battle-weary heads off the kitchen table, only for new challenges to soon unfold. In addition to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been the increased cost of living, both of which have added fuel to the fire of persistent uncertainty.
Online platforms and news access have allowed people in every corner of the world to be connected 24/7. While social media has become an integral, and to a large extent, unavoidable part of our lives, the bombardment of information and news has certainly had an impact. The desire for our dopamine ‘hit,’ (the chemical in the brain associated with reward and pleasure) will keep us going back for more. Yet, being constantly connected with a deluge of this information can be difficult to navigate.
Earlier in human history, paying attention to threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more aware of danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive.
As humans, we tend to:
The feeling of anxiety is a natural response to stress and uncertainty, and can sometimes be described as like a burglar alarm going off without a way to turn it off or perhaps a saucepan constantly bubbling away in the background.
The intent of feeling anxious is to motivate us individually and collectively to solve problems and is a natural response to stress.
Many people find themselves involved in negative thought patterns that are repetitive without completion, fixating on the negative feelings about the problem. Excessive, repetitive thinking about the same event, known as rumination, is quite common in both anxiety and depression. Rumination is stuck thought due to a stuck state. Stuck flight energy with no direction leads to anxiety, which leads to repetitive thinking; searching for a solution, but there is none. It can be likened to a hamster running on a wheel – running to nowhere.
Sometimes when the danger has passed, this stuck state remains, like a shadow that lurks, sometimes very large and very consuming.
When you understand the process of what may be happening, then you can start to look at options of using your mind and body to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
Moving out of this state isn’t always easy, but the body has a secret weapon we can take advantage of – the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, also known as the vagal nerves, are the main nerves of your nervous system. This nerve does many things, but the one we’re interested in here is the way it triggers a relaxation response in the body and increases something called vagal tone, slowing down the heart and breathing rate to calm the nervous system down.
Here are some ways you can increase vagal tone and reduce anxiety:
1. Breathe deep
Try breathing out for longer than you breathe in, as this helps to activate our parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response).
2. Sing it out
The vagus nerve runs up our necks, so when we engage our vocal cords, we can improve our overall wellbeing. Singing, humming or gargling water can also do this.
Massaging any part of the body is great for rest and relaxation, but it’s thought that massaging the feet can help stimulate the vagus nerve. Try gently massaging your neck, shoulders and behind your ears for more direct contact with the vagus nerve.
4. Connect with others
Isolation can exacerbate stress as we feel alone in our struggles. Connecting with others and feeling a sense of belonging is a fantastic way to gain perspective and calm our nervous system down.
As well as stimulating the vagus nerve, laughter can help lower blood pressure and improve mood.
6. Cold water immersion
Exposing yourself to the cold may not sound relaxing, but as well as triggering our relaxation response, it’s thought to reduce inflammation in the body. Try putting your face in some cold water or, if you’re feeling brave, having a cold shower. You might want to start with short exposures and build up.
Most of us know that exercise prompts our body to release ‘feel good’ hormones, but it turns out it also stimulates the vagus nerve. The trick here is to find a movement you enjoy so that it feels fun, and not a chore.
8. Probiotics have been shown to stimulate our vagus nerve
Having healthy gut bacteria improves brain function. It positively changes certain receptors which are responsible for most of the messages being sent in our brain and our nervous system, ultimately reducing our stress hormones. The best way to get probiotics into your diet is eating foods like yoghurt or fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut or even kombucha. But, of course, always check with your doctor before changing your diet.
9. Try and sleep on your right side
A considerable part of our vagus nerve runs down the right side of your neck. Research shows that sleeping on that side can actually activate it. So, we get all the benefits of it being stimulated, just by simply sleeping on it.
Whatever feelings you are experiencing, you don’t need to face them alone.
If you or a family member are receiving care from Ashgate Hospice, our adult supportive care services and children’s services are here to help you cope and adjust when facing emotionally distressing experiences. Our counsellors are trained to help you understand and adapt in a safe and supportive space; at a pace individual to each person.
If you are reading this blog post but you or a family member are not under our care, you can also seek support from the following organisations:
Since writing this blog post, Karen has moved post and we wish her well.