According to a new study, 69 per cent of adults in the UK have experienced an increase in workplace anxiety in 2023, while according to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost globally every year to conditions like anxiety. Of course, a little nervousness is understandable and expected when navigating back into work mode after enjoying some time off, but if you find yourself struggling with increased stress, or that it is affecting your sleep or mood – all signs of an overworked and overwhelmed nervous system – it might be time for a reset.
Connect with your vagus nerve
Key to helping reset a frazzled nervous system is tuning into the vagal activity produced by your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, and is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. Controlling functions like the immune system and digestion – and often referred to as the “rest and digest” response – the parasympathetic nervous system works alongside the sympathetic nervous system (known as the “fight or flight” response), which is activated when we feel stressed.
When the parasympathetic system is triggered, the vagal tone (the activity of the vagus nerve) increases, which results in a slower heart rate, easier breathing and a calmer nervous system in general. A 2010 study identified a positive correlation between a high vagal tone and positive emotions. One key feature of the vagus nerve is that it runs through the vocal chords, the muscles at the back of the throat and the inner ear, meaning it’s particularly receptive to vibrations made when we sing or hum. Simply humming for a few minutes every day can help us to destress, by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and even producing neurochemicals like oxytocin.
Don’t neglect your ears
Ear massage is a powerful de-stressing technique that can help to reduce feelings of anxiety. Better still it can be done anywhere from the bath to the boardroom. “The ear is one of the most powerful microsystems in the body,” says acupuncturist and wellness expert Sarah Bradden. “I love working with them as it’s like having a direct line to the brain. By massaging and pulling the ears, you have an immediate calming effect on the whole body, helping to regulate and calm the nervous system.”
Known as auriculotherapy, massaging the ears stimulates certain pressure points that cause nerve sensations to travel throughout the body. It also triggers the release of feel-good hormones, endorphins. To target stress and anxiety specifically, use your thumb and forefinger to gently but firmly massage the upper shell of your ear, which is sometimes referred to as the “heavenly gate point” for stress. If you find yourself yawning or feel your eyes begin to water, keep going. Both are signs that the parasympathetic nervous system has been activated.
Opt for low-intensity exercise
Regular exercise is a fantastic way to improve overall health and wellbeing, but when you exercise and what you do is an important consideration if you want to reduce anxiety. Despite being prescribed as a natural way to lower stress, exercise itself actually increases cortisol levels and engages the sympathetic nervous system. Over time and with regular exposure, this effect is diminished as the body adapts to this kind of aerobic stress, but if you’re prone to anxiety it’s best to avoid anything too intense, like HIIT, which causes a cascade of cortisol and can overexcite an already stimulated nervous system. If that is you, it’s especially important to avoid anything too full-on late at night when your natural cortisol levels are low, and a surge won’t be welcome. Instead, focus on slow, mindful practices like deep stretching or Yin yoga, which have all the benefits of exercise, like encouraging healthy, new neurons, but without the added intensity. If you don’t want to give up your punishing workouts altogether, aim to do them first thing in the morning when your cortisol levels are naturally higher and your body is better equipped to deal with the onslaught of hormones.
Upgrade your acupuncture
Acupuncture on its own is a great way to maintain a healthy nervous system, helping to regulate neurotransmitters and restore balance by activating specific nerve pathways, but if you can feel your anxiety spinning out of control, it might be time to upgrade your treatment. Seek out techniques like the Bradden Method (devised by Bradden as the ultimate reset), which combines acupuncture with elements such as activated oxygen, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) and infrared, all of which promote cellular healing and regeneration and enhance and influence the correct functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system. “Everything that I bring into the Bradden Method has to activate our own body’s healing abilities, from the water I use to the specialist acupuncture techniques through to the high-tech wellness machines,” she says. “They all complement one another beautifully, it’s like they supercharge each other.”
Do your homework on your breathwork
Breathing is something we all intuitively do, but likely don’t realise the impact it can have. “The way you breathe affects just about every system in your body,” says breathwork expert Richie Bostock, otherwise known as @thebreathguy. “Because we have conscious control over our breath, by simply learning how to use [it] as a tool, you can quickly affect the systems and functions in your body, improving your physical and mental health and performance and emotional wellbeing.” When we feel anxious, the sympathetic nervous system prepares us to deal with the perceived threat by causing our breath to become shallow and rapid, which in turn helps increase the availability of oxygen.
Key to reducing the spiral of anxiety caused by poor breathing is learning to override your natural impulse to breathe harder and faster. “The trick is to learn to breathe low and slow,” advises Bostock. “By breathing low, I mean that we optimally engage our diaphragm. As you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and descends, pulling air into the lowest parts of your lungs. As the diaphragm descends, your organs underneath are pushed to the front, back and sides. This causes your abdomen to expand, giving the appearance of breathing into the stomach, which is why diaphragmatic breathing is often referred to as ‘belly breathing’. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and ascends, forcing the inhaled air out of your lungs.”
Learning to breathe properly is a vital tool in your anti-stress arsenal, as it’s something that will engage your parasympathetic nervous system immediately and make you feel instantly better. To begin, Bostock suggests a five-minute technique known as Coherence Breathing. “Place your hands on the bottom of your ribcage. Inhale through your nose for five seconds, keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed. Exhale through your nose for five seconds. Repeat this cycle for at least three minutes, but there really is no limit as to how long you can go.”
This article was originally published on Vogue UK.