Ways to Decrease Your Stress Response

The vagus nerve connects your brain to many important organs throughout your body, including the intestines, stomach, heart and lungs. In short, it activates a relaxation response in the brain: Decreases heart rate and blood pressure, influences your breathing, stimulates digestion and reduces stress, all of which can have a huge impact on your overall wellness. It’s an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved with calming organs after a stress response.

And what’s interesting is that studies have shown that vagal tone is passed down from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels.

Some of us have stronger vagal activity, which means our bodies can relax faster after stress. The stronger your vagal tone, the stronger your body is at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone has been associated with chronic inflammation.

Vagal tone can be determined by measuring your heart rate through an ECG. NO need to get an ECG, but here are some affects on your organ systems with natural ways to decrease your stress response by activating your vagus nerve.

Natural Ways to Activate Your Vagus Nerve:

1. Deep and Slow Breathing
Deep and slow diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic nervous system by activating the vagus nerve.
Deep Breathing Exercise: Try using diaphragmatic breathing to practice deep, slow breathing. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. As you inhale draw the breath into your belly and as you exhale hug your baby and draw your baby back towards your spine. As you do this, try to inhale as deeply as you can, to a count of 3 to 6 seconds and exhale longer than your inhale to a count of 5 to 8 seconds.

2. Singing, Humming, Chanting and/or Gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. These techniques have been shown to increase vagal tone and decrease your anxiety and stress levels.

Music Therapy Exercise with Prenatal/Postnatal Benefits: You just learned singing is one way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system but did you know that music therapy interventions are evidence based and research has found that singing improves the wellbeing of infants and parents around the world? When you sing to your baby the benefits can be seen quite quickly and within minutes your baby may start to show calming signs. The benefits aren’t solely for your baby though, if you choose a preferred lullaby and sing in person to your baby, this can enhance bonding and decrease your anxiety and stress levels. Get ready for singing to become an established connection and a welcomed routine that follows you through your pregnancy, birth and motherhood journey.

Think about your favorite lullaby. Perhaps one that your loved one may have sung to you as a child. Think about your reaction and the love expressed during that moment of special bonding. Let’s create that experience and those precious memories between you and your baby. Here a couple of our traditional lullaby favorites: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Rock-A-Bye Baby, Are You Sleeping, and The Itsy-Bitsy Spider. Because benefits are quite instant, enjoy as often as you’d like.

3. Meditation & Sitting in Silence
Luckily, you can combat the negative effects of chronic stress on your brain and nervous system with something as simple as breath work. Sitting in silence and finding your breath for just 30 minutes a day can change the gray matter in your brain. But how is this possible?

A Harvard MRI-based study found that participants had changes that occurred in their brain over 8 weeks of mindfulness-based meditation practices, which also lowered participants feelings of stress. The MRI images correlated the participant’s reduction of stress with ACTUAL brain changes in the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for feelings of anxiety and stress. Over the eight weeks, the hippocampus, which relates to memory, learning, self-awareness, compassion and introspection, also showed increased gray matter. The participants averaged 27 minutes of meditation each day.

Your baby feels what you feel. Research shows that stress hormones affect the growth of the fetus and long-term stress can be measured in your amniotic fluid. The human fetus is collecting information from you as they grow, this is physical, mental and of course chemical. The way you feel can affect your child’s long-term health.

You may be wondering how in the world to find 27 extra minutes a day to meditate, but both you, your baby’s health and quality of life will benefit. We need to be realistic but it’s definitely worth it to do the best you can.

We’d love to hear: What are your favorite go-to mindfulness techniques that help you reduce stress?

Unique Footprints Authors:

Jenny Morrow, RN, IBCLC, LCCE, RYT

Jenny is a born and raised Texan who loves the feel of a book in her hands, an unshakable optimistic and refuels by time in nature. She’s a mom, neonatal nurse and founder of Unique Footprints (a fully realized, 100% digital pregnant and new mom resource). She created her company in the delivery room – literally! As a nurse assisting with deliveries and postpartum care, she directly witnessed families who did not feel prepared and were shocked through the transition into parenthood, and she knew there was a better way. Jenny has taught over 10,000 expecting families how to prepare for this time in their lives. You can learn more about Jenny here.

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