Chances are, you’ve had a few opportunities to be crippled by symptoms of anxiety in your life. Maybe it was a first day at a new job or a social occasion with no familiar faces. Perhaps it happened right before you needed to perform in front of an audience. These occasions can be few and far between for some or chronically debilitating for others. Any way you experience it, anxiety generally comes with the same set of symptoms—accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, an abrupt tightness in your stomach. What’s happening here is your body’s fight-or-flight response, the automatic physiological and psychological behaviors that prepare your body to react to a perceived danger.
The cultural evolution of human society outpaced the biological evolution of the human species a long time ago. This is why, when you’re preparing for an upcoming Powerpoint presentation at work, your body reacts the same way as it would if you were stalking elk in the wild. Of course, sounding like an idiot in front of your colleagues would be embarrassing, but it wouldn’t exactly be dangerous. If something goes wrong, your boss probably won’t eat you.* Yet before you know it, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in.
This is the stimulating division of your collective autonomic (or automatic) nervous system, which regulates all of the involuntary functions your body engages in to stay alive. Your body releases adrenaline from its adrenal glands and begins to accelerate your breathing and heart rate. This way, you can get more oxygen in your body and deliver it to your muscles. Your brain releases cortisol, which slows down your metabolism to conserve your energy. Your pupils dilate, your muscles tremble with tension and you find yourself in a body physically primed for swift action against an elk — or during a routine Tuesday morning meeting.
So how do our bodies stop this process from ruining our lives (and our presentations)? Enter the vagus nerve—the head honcho of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that counters the actions of the sympathetic nervous system. Originating in the brainstem at the base of your brain, the vagus nerve travels all the way down through your neck into your chest, your gut, and finally, into your abdomen. Along the way, it carries motor and sensory information to and from the heart, blood vessels, and all major players in the respiratory and digestive systems. Aptly named for the Latin word for wandering, the vagus nerve really gets around in the body and plays a key role in regulating the biological systems we need to exist. What happens in vagus definitely doesn’t stay in vagus.
To see why the vagus nerve is so important, let’s go back to that elk hunting and/or public speaking scenario that got you all geared up earlier. By the time you’re reaching the end of your Powerpoint presentation or dragging dinner back to the tribe, it’s not really helpful for your body to remain in a heightened state triggered by the stressful event you just experienced. It is now up to the vagus nerve to reign in this response by slowing your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and returning your body into a relaxed state. This push and pull of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is an important dynamic that keeps our bodies in balance. Anyone with a chronic case of anxiety will tell you that when the former state persists for extended lengths of time, it can corrode the body and brain.
Incidentally, the strength of your vagus nerve response—your vagal tone—directly impacts your physical health. The importance of vagal tone can be explained by how it’s measured: by how quickly and effectively your body can relax after moments of stress. Your capacity to react to your environment efficiently indicates that you have a higher “vagal tone index,” a state that is linked to physiological and psychological well-being as well as a decreased risk of diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Conversely, a lower vagal tone has been linked to inflammation, poor cardiovascular health, and difficulty regulating emotions.
So, we’ve established that the vagus nerve is kind of important to the quality of your life. The good news is that your vagal tone can be improved by some minor changes in your behavior. For example, some exercises, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing, cardiovascular exercise, and meditation all stimulate the vagus nerve and can increase your vagal tone.
The best news is you can also do this just by spending some time with your friends.
Say you’ve finished your presentation and your stomach is still tied up in knots as you continue to mull over that part where your slides were accidentally out of order. It’s now the afternoon and you’ve been shaking, you skipped lunch, and you haven’t even used the bathroom all day. Fortunately, you had made plans with a friend to grab coffee after work, and when you meet up, your friend assures you that your mistake was minor and likely went unnoticed. Your friend shares stories of their own embarrassing workplace blunders to make you laugh and take your mind off your morning. Suddenly your appetite returns and your body relaxes for the first time that day. And you realize you need to go to the bathroom.
This is no coincidence; social connections like this have been clinically proven to relax people. Positive social interactions, such as seeing someone smile, make eye contact, and talk to you with kind tones stimulate the vagus to relax your body in what is known as the “tend-and-befriend” response.
Researchers call this an “upward spiral”—positive, face-to-face interactions improve your vagal tone, which improves your ability to regulate your emotions, which results in experiencing more positive emotions and engaging in more positive social connections. In turn, positive social connections, of course, improve your vagal tone and aid in the proper functioning of the rest of your body. This makes sense because, realistically, your ancestors weren’t alone when they were hunting that elk—they had friends there to help. Humans are social creatures by design and it stands to reason that the ability to build and maintain positive social relationships is as beneficial to our physiological health as it is to our mental health. Next time the world starts to seem overwhelming, try to meet up with a friend instead of keeping it to yourself. Maybe plan a trip to Vegas or something.
*Depending on the industry
Tamanna Gulati helps run Expanding Your Horizons Chicago, which hosts one-day conferences to encourage young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.