Improving Self Resilience

What happens in your Vagus doesn’t stay in your Vagus

How can we get more self-resilient?

Resilience is interesting. It's mistakenly thought of in the same - also mistaken - way that we think of leadership; something that you are born with. If you are lucky enough to be born with resilience you can sleep through a twitter storm. If you weren’t? Well you will have to comfort eat or drink your way through the hard moments of life. The good news though is that it isn't true. People aren’t born leaders and they aren’t born resilient. Resilience - like leadership - is a skill that we can all develop.

Welcome to Vagus.

When we feel overwhelmed and stressed we use our sympathetic nervous system; the SNS. The SNS is involved in our fight and flight responses and the release of stress hormones like cortisol. We know that too much stress significantly increases our risk of serious illness and heart problems but we obviously can’t avoid it and we benefit from the heightened responses to some of life's challenges, but to be resilient we need a healthy balance. That's where the Vagus nerve comes in.

The Vagus is the Jack Kerouac of nerves. The word comes from the latin for ‘to wander’ and the Vagus nerve wanders around from the brain, into the neck, chest and abdomen. Importantly for resilience, the Vagus nerve is a key part of our Parasympathetic Nervous System, the PSNS. The PSNS can be thought of as the opposition to the SNS. It helps to manage our resting and digesting behaviours. This is where we are calm, resting, soothed, engaged in prosocial behaviour like eating and relaxing. In scientific terms the Vagus nerve triggers the release of neurotransmitter acetylcholine which helps to soothe our flight and fight responses.

In simple terms our personal resilience is about getting the balance right between these competing nervous systems. For most of us that means tapping into the powers of the Vagus nerve more often.

So how do we use this knowledge to develop more personal resilience?

Good question, we’re glad you asked.

Scientists have discovered several ways that people can activate their Vagus nerve. None of them are going to surprise you but if you do them there is plenty of peer reviewed evidence that suggests you are significant more likely to feel calmer and more resilient.

Here are Real Clear’s top 5:

  • Deep breathing. Close your eyes, slowly fill all of your lungs with air, picture them filling up, and then slowly release the air. 2 minutes will help. The more often you take 2 minutes the more it will help.
  • Your kind of physical activity. If you don’t like gyms, don’t go. If you don’t like running, don’t run. Instead find something that you are happy to do and only do an amount that you pretty much enjoy.
  • Be altruistic: Volunteer, help a friend, pay something forward, engage in what psychologists call generativity; helping the next generation. All of these behaviours, rooted in supporting others,reduce stress and increase resilience. And no, work doesn’t count! Make a different difference!
  • Face to face communication and community. Facebook wasn’t invented by the devil, but I think he was involved at the planning stage. Meet friends, get involved in a community (residents, cricket club, book club, neighbourhood watch, community gardening, hangliding club, morris dancing etc etc).
  • Take the time to get your perspective back – be in awe of things. Look at the stars, travel, go for a walk in the country, take in a great view, get curious about some science. Research has shown that kids who play outside more have a greater sense of the wonder of things!

In other words turn facebook off. Put your phone down and go and play outside!


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