Healthy habits for hard times

Committing to small, daily habits that keep our mind, body and soul aligned makes for a more joyful, resilient life

Our lives are a rich tapestry of experience: joy, sadness, hope, grief, love, pain and so much more. The dance between these qualities can be challenging, as we ride the crests and dips of our ever-changing tides.

Yet when we deepen our mind-body connection through daily, spiritual practice, we cultivate and strengthen our resilience. This bolsters our internal world, making us better equipped to navigate life’s storms.

The much-loved Winnie the Pooh quote, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think,” highlights our often shrouded resilience. Committing to fostering that resilience is an act of great self-compassion. When we nurture and nourish ourselves, we learn how to soothe our souls in times of fluctuation and uncertainty.

Stress is natural. It helps us to meet our daily challenges; to try new things that feel thrilling or exciting, without threat or fear. But stress that activates our ‘fight or flight’ response – and leaves us mentally and physically exhausted or with chronic pain, anxiety and illness – is the type we are trying to reduce.

We might look outside ourselves for ways to manage overwhelming sensations. Yet the healing answers are within us. They lie in the very wisdom of our bodies.

One of the most potent ways to heal from within is by stimulating our vagus nerve. This “helps us regulate stress and create deep and meaningful relationships”, writes Jennifer Mann, cofounder of the Chronic Fatigue School. “It is the centre of the parasympathetic nervous system. It decreases alertness, blood pressure and heart rate, which helps the body to relax and calm itself. [It] acts to counterbalance the fight or flight system and can trigger a relaxation response.”

The longest cranial nerve in the body, the vagus originates in the brain stem and travels into the chest and abdomen. Responsible for the functioning of our vital organs, including the heart, lungs and intestines, it also regulates our stress and can restore mental and physical balance.

“When the ‘ventral vagus complex’ runs the show,” Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in /The Body Keeps the Score/, “we smile when others smile at us, we nod our heads when we agree, and we frown when friends tell us of their misfortunes. It also sends signals down to our heart and lungs, slowing down our heart rate and increasing the depth of breathing. As a result, we feel calm and relaxed, centred.”

Practices that stimulate this powerful nerve are called ‘vagal toning’. The higher our vagal tone, the quicker we come back into homeostasis, or balance, after stress.

So how can we raise our tone and become our most potent, resilient selves?

The throat is our centre of communication. We feel exhilarated when we sing along loudly to a favourite song, experience easy joy when we hum along to a tune on the radio, and notice a sense of peace when we chant a mantra in a yoga class.

These soothing sensations are a result of the vagus nerve’s connection to our vocal cords. Using our voice in those ways creates a vibration that stimulates the nerve. That creates a parasympathetic – ‘rest and digest’ – response. This increases our vagal tone, making singing and chanting great for stress relief and repair.

Cold water therapy
Cold water therapy, advocated by the Wim Hof Method, has many reported benefits, such as reducing inflammation and improving sleep quality. That’s because exposure to cold temperatures releases endorphins that naturally elevate our mood.

To begin practising, finish your regular shower with thirty seconds of cold. Commit to this daily and journal how you feel. Slowly build the time you spend in the cold and notice any improvements in your mindset and mood over the course of the day. It’s a great way to boost your resilience and you may even begin to look forward to the experience.

Conscious breathing is a great way to raise our vagal tone. In times of stress, our heart rate quickens and our breath often becomes shorter and more shallow.

By slowing our breath, we activate the vagus nerve and increase our feelings of calm. We can practise by counting 1, 2, 3, 4 on the inhalation and exhaling to a count of 5 or 6. Practise for a few rounds and notice how you feel.

You might also explore adding sound. As you inhale through your nose, feel your belly fill with air. When you reach full expansion, cup your ears with your hands and hum as you exhale through your mouth. Repeat for a few rounds. The hum activates the vocal cords and the vagus nerve, sending ripples of calm around the body.

The phrase ‘paralysed by fear’ refers to the energy that feels stuck in our bodies when we’re navigating times of stress. But when we move our bodies in a considered way, we can release some of this stagnant energy, allowing our physical self to process the mind’s trauma.

You might find a release by practising yoga, walking in nature, or swaying a rhythmic figure of 8 with your hips for a few rounds.

Self-soothing practices such as massage bring us into a parasympathetic state, in which we can rest and digest our lived experience. Massaging the outer creases of the ear, gently rubbing in ‘S’ shapes as we go, stimulates the powerful nerve.

This can help ground us and bring us into our present moment experience, allowing us to tune into our body in a calm and soothing way.


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