It’s the Holidays: Take a Deep Breath…Seriously

The holidays are in full swing. What are YOU anxious about?

  • Family
  • Food
  • High expectations
  • Finances
  • Too much to do and too little time

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is a mixed bag for most people. While it may be fun filled, it’s also a time of high anxiety. This year I thought I’d use a little science to help you manage your stress and feelings of overwhelm during the holiday season.

Have you ever had an experience where you’re all worked up and someone tells you to slow down and take a deep breath? In the moment it’s annoying, right?! But it turns out there is a really important physiological explanation for why it works and why it’s important. And if you’re like me, understanding the biological underpinnings is the first step to buying into something.

According to John Cryan of the University College Cork in Ireland, “The vagus nerve is the highway of communication between what’s going on in the gut and what’s going on in the brain.” This beautiful picture illustrates how the vagus nerve innervates nearly every vital organ in our body, starting with our brain and ending in a complicated branch of nerves in our digestive tract.

You may be wondering why I’m talking about this incredible nerve. The reason is that we can actually use our vagus nerve to our advantage. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can actually decrease feelings of stress and anxiety as well as the associated health problems. One of the fastest and accessible ways to turn off your fight or flight response and turn on your rest and digest response is to stimulate your vagus nerve through deep breathing.

Remember, your vagus nerve is communicating to brain how things are going. By breathing deeply your diaphragm moves in such a way to massage or stimulate your vagus nerve. This action allows your vagus nerve to tell your brain to slow down and relax. Essentially it’s saying- take it easy, everything is just fine!

Here is a little tutorial on how to practice deep (or diaphragmatic) breathing. If you don’t want to watch the video, here are a couple of pointers: 

  • Think about breathing into your belly rather than your chest.
  • Your belly should expand and contract while your chest remains still.
  • Take longer to exhale. I imagine myself inhaling for three counts and exhaling for 5 counts.

So the next time you feel overwhelmed or anxious commit to taking 5 deep breaths. It’s a sure fire way to get your vagus nerve working to your advantage.

Do you have any other tips for managing holiday stress? I’d love to hear them!