What is Your Gut Telling You?
Have you ever wondered why we get ‘butterflies’ in our stomach when we are nervous or excited? Or feel our stomach ‘drop’ when we get bad news? The gut and the mind are constantly communicating with each other via the Gut-Mind Axis. As it turns out, our ‘gut feelings’ have a lot to tell us.
One of the connections of the gut-mind axis is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the brain stem down to the pelvis, connecting with the lungs, heart, internal organs, intestinal tract (gut) and sex organs along the way. It also runs up into the facial and cranial nerves.
The vagus nerve has been referred to as the “superhighway between the gut and the brain”. With all its connections, the vagus nerve tells the brain how the body is doing. It also carries signals from the brain to the body. So, when your stomach is in ‘knots’ or you feel nauseous when you get nervous, it is because the gut and the mind are intimately connected through the vagus nerve.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system helps regulate the body's internal organs and is made up of two different pathways: the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing our bodies to respond to real and perceived threats. When our brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system increases our heart rate, quickens our breathing, and increases blood flow to the muscles. Essentially, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘fight, flight or freeze' response.
The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite – it is our ‘rest and digest’ system. The vagus nerve makes up 75% of the parasympathetic nervous system. When the threat has subsided, the vagus nerve carries signals from the brain to the internal organs, bringing our heart rate and breathing back to normal and engaging our digestive system.
What Can I Do?
When Anxiety shows up, you want to remind yourself that you are safe and activate the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. This superhighway sendsbreathe information both ways – meaning that you can signal to the brain that the threat has subsided just by changing what your body is doing. If you can engage the vagus nerve, your parasympathetic nervous system will activate and naturally quiet Anxiety.
Since the vagus nerve is connected to our lungs, one way this can be done is by practicing deep and slow belly breathing. Our heart rate quickens when we inhale and slows when we exhale. So, you want to breathe in a controlled manner that emphasizes your exhale (e.g., in for 5, out for 10). You also want to make sure that you are breathing into your belly (not up into your chest) to engage the diaphragm. You can also sing, laugh or hum to achieve this same effect.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is also triggered by cold temperatures. You can splash cold water on your face, take your shoes off and stand in the snow, or take a cold shower.
So, the next time your body is trying to tell you something, take a moment to listen to it and know that we are here to support you if you need tools to help you cope with the message it sends.