Keep Calm and Activate the Vagus Nerve

 minute read

Liz Hammond

Easy and actionable practices for slowing down your system with psychologist Hiroko Demichelis

Positive psychologist, Hiroko Demichelis believes that as a society, we have mastered the art of the hustle. We take pride in deprioritizing sleep, live on our phones and are more often than not, in a state of fight or flight. For a number of oppressive reasons, we are told that in order to be of worth, we need to be productive, constantly. But Demichelis argues that more productivity (and happiness) can actually be found by “having the courage to nap” or giving into “the beauty of slowing down.” But, how do we do that exactly?

Before we dig into the magic answer to this question, you need to know a little bit about Hiroko. Born in Italy and given a Japanese name, Hiroko is passionate about the brain and helping clients optimize their physiology to live happier, healthier lives. After spending 10 years working for a little Italian fashion house called Prada, Hiroko shifted her career entirely going back to school to pursue two masters in Positive Clinical Psychology. Hiroko is one of those rare people who makes you feel heard and honoured when in a conversation with her (thanks to her ability to be truly present). In her deliciously melodic Italian accent, she shared with me why the vagus nerve is our answer to slowing down, and ultimately, becoming more effective and efficient humans.  

The vagus nerve is a physical nerve that runs from the back of the brain, down your neck, through your heart and visceral organs. Hiroko refers to the vagus nerve as the deaccelerator which allows our heart to slow down and send a signal to our brain that we are safe. When we access this state of calm, our brain is better able to integrate information and make decisions. 

So, how do we get there? During the exhale, (during meditation, or in what Hiroko calls a “long and delicious outbreath”) the vagus nerve, that embraces the heart, helps it slow down. This then creates a positive feedback loop in your brain and visceral organs. Through breath, we are able to avoid wasting mental resources, and instead, adopt a more functional and strategic speed. 

Slow seems like the right lane to be in, doesn’t it? But what happens when you don’t have time for a meditation practice in your schedule? Hiroko shares a list of actionable practices (some of which may surprise you!) to keep in your back pocket to activate the vagus nerve’s superpowers. 

1. “When in doubt, voo it out” 

This phrase comes from well-known trauma therapist, Peter Levine. Levine advises patients to make the sound “voo” as a means for firing up the vagus nerve and bringing the central nervous system back into a calmer state. The humming vibration made by this noise creates the same reaction in the vagus nerve, heart and brain as oxygen. If “voo” doesn’t resonate, try humming your favourite tune to refocus and ease your mind. 

2. Get chatty 

Hiroko talks about the incredible healing power of chatting with friends or family when you’re physiology is on overdrive. Stimulating the vocal cords through talking generates the vagus nerve positive feedback loop we need to slow down and recalibrate. 

3. Dive in

Whether it’s a dip in the ocean or a quick shower, exposing yourself to cold water helps to create what Hiroko calls a “mammalian reflex.” This reflex activates the vagus nerve, letting it know to slow down the heart (which by the way, naturally beats at a very speedy 110-130 beats per minute). 

4. Just breathe 

You don’t need to sit in monk-like silence for hours on end to accomplish vagus nerve activation. In fact, you don’t even need to leave your desk and engage in a formal meditation practice. If you’re in need of a reset, take a conscious inhalation and linger in a slow, calming exhalation. Think of that outbreath as the gateway to the slow, ease-filled way of life you’re looking for. 

5. Gut health is your friend 

There is endless research on the strong connection between gut and brain health. Hiroko insists that maintaining a healthy gut is is an essential tool for optimizing vagus nerve activity. This looks like eating inflammatory foods, taking pre- and probiotics, and having a healthy poop schedule (seriously). When all else fails, Hiroko says all you need to remember is “voo and poo” for an activated, supportive vagus nerve. 

While it may seem counterintuitive, remember that slowing down doesn’t have to pose a threat to your productivity. In fact, one of Hiroko’s mandates she shares with clients is that when we go slow, we get there faster. Find even just a few moments today to lean on these handy practices to help you tap into the slowing powers of your friend, the vagus nerve.

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