When you’re in chronic stress and life has become one big hyper-vigilant ‘constant alert,’ you can feel you’ve lost the path back to finding the peace you need for recovery. Self-soothing is the mechanism our bodies use to bring us back down to calm, after or even during the jolt of stress. This can offer you space to decide on the most helpful reaction in a crisis or bring all systems back to rest after being revved up and reactive.
Without healthy self-soothing abilities, living in continually heightened states can be exhausting, lead to a whole range of stress-related symptoms (anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel and weight gain, to name a few) and create fear-based and negative thinking that can influence behaviors and decision-making. This survival state can manifest as anxious states and reactivity, but also as more ‘frozen’ states of immobilization, mental shutdown and disengagement from the world.
Whichever protective mode you find yourself in as a response to feeling overwhelmed, supporting self-soothing mechanisms can help you find a state of safety and the path back to calm.
Good vagal tone
Our ability to come down from stress relies on the action of the vagus nerve. Reaching all the way from the brain to the gut, the vagus nerve signals the calming parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), also known as the ‘rest, digest and heal’ state, where we also dream, solidify memories and think from a more creative perspective. This is where we digest optimally, blood can flow fully to the skin, and tense muscles can relax.
Vagus means ‘wandering’ (like vagrant or vagabond), and the vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves that exit the brain from the skull and the only cranial nerve to move into the body, running from the hypothalamus in the brain down to the chest and diaphragm, and eventually connecting to all our visceral organs via the solar plexus, essentially wrapping around our heart and core areas. The vagus nerve resets the body after a stressor has passed – ‘slamming on the brakes’ to come back to a reflective place after the impulsive reactions of stress.
When this ability, or ‘vagal tone,’ is good, we can access this self-soothing mechanism with ease, but poor vagal response can mean we struggle to come out of anxiety.
We can access the vagus nerve directly behind the eyeballs, in the palate of the mouth, the tongue, the ear canal and lobe, and the surface of the lips. Simple techniques for activating your vagus nerve can provide quick relief from nervous system hyperdrive:
• Being around people who offer safety and connection to positive emotions and joy.
• Conscious breathing with a focus on the exhale, breathing in deeply to let the calming out-breath really flow, even making an ‘ah’ sound to open the back of your mouth and release tightness around the temples and jaw. Slow breath has been shown to encourage good vagal tone.1
• Softening the eyes, face and jaw; we often soothe ourselves automatically by touching our lips, opening our mouths and rubbing our ears.
• Touching or stroking your body (including face and lips) with kindness and self-compassion; placing a hand on the heart, belly or anywhere that feels calming taps into our need for warmth and touch.
• Massaging the forehead to activate the trigeminal nerve, which in turn provokes the vagus nerve’s soothing effect.
• Asking for a hug or giving one to yourself and breathing deeply to offer ‘letting go’ to your whole body. After 20 seconds of hugging, we produce the hormone oxytocin, the ‘love molecule’ released by breastfeeding mothers, parents bonding with their children and those in love.
• Washing your hands with warm water or submersing yourself in warm water.
The polyvagal theory, first developed by Dr Steven Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1990s,2 advances the traditional view that the autonomic nervous system involves only two reactions: sympathetic (fight-or-flight) or parasympathetic (calming). Instead, the polyvagal theory proposes “a hierarchical system” of three circuits.
Within this system, the more we are challenged, the more likely we are to drop from more conscious responses that involve the ‘evolved’ or mammalian front brain, toward more primal, older circuits driven from the ‘reptilian’ lower brain, in an attempt to survive.
The new vagus: We start out trying to use our “social engagement system” to look at each other and resolve things warmly – that’s our default parasympathetic circuit, which allows us to be fully present in the moment. From there, we can observe and evaluate possible danger or threat with a sense of space and action appropriate to the situation, seeing different options and having foresight of their consequences.
Fight-or-flight response: If that fails, we devolve into a primitive survival response (sympathetic circuit), where adrenalin and vigilance take over, with impulsive, instinctive and emotionally reactive decision-making, often from a fear-based stance. If we are startled by something and confirm that it doesn’t pose a threat, we may drop back into the new vagus state, especially if we practice being aware and present with meditation, yoga or tai chi.
The old vagus: If the first two options fail us, we have chronic stress or trauma, or feel overwhelmed by the choice of how to react, our ancient reptilian vagus circuit takes over and causes immobilization, either freezing or dissociation. When we’re caught in the old vagus circuit, we can end up following old ‘coping strategies’ such as comfort eating, feeling a lack of body awareness, fear of change and lack of adaptability, and attachment to regimens, routines, habits or preferences that may no longer suit our needs.
The way out of reacting in these limiting behavior options of fight, flight or freeze is first to orient to our present surroundings and consciously notice where we are in time and space. If the present situation is actually safe and our reactions are either a result of habitual stress or trauma (living as though the traumatic event or unsafe environment were happening now), we then have the opportunity to look around and listen fully to start to register safety.
If possible, being in relation with others
at that time helps bring us back to the new vagus; eye contact, smiling and touch from people we trust can bring us back from dissociation to a feeling of groundedness within our bodies.
Mindful movement and vagal tone
Mindful practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong and any activity performed with consciousness of moment-to-moment feeling (without the judgment of ‘like or dislike’) encourage us to develop good ‘vagal tone’ – the ability to operate in the ‘new vagus’ state.3 The interpersonal attunement felt in activities that promote this awareness encourage heartfelt connection with other humans and ultimately lead to greater ‘new vagus’ experiences of social connectivity and engagement.
Such practices, as well as meditation, have been shown to increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), the release of which is signaled by the vagus to calm the mind and decrease feelings of anxiety.4
The polyvagal theory of stress response according to arousal and threat level
Simple soothing movements
Lying on the ground promotes mind-body safety as we feel fully held and supported.
Drawing knees into the chest in any fetal position protects the front body and creates the soothing sensations of nurturing.
This movement also relieves tension in the lower back that can result from the tightening of tissues in cases of chronic stress or trauma.
You can stay here in stillness as a meditative position or move in any way that feels natural to create the soothing effects of self-massage.
This action reduces stress hormones and raises levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is involved in social engagement.5
A bridge pose promotes safety as you work the legs and also undulate the spine up and down with the breath to loosen the diaphragm and encourage ease of breathing.
From lying, feet hip-width apart or wider, feel good contact with the base of the big toe, so that as you inhale and bring the arms up and over the shoulders, you direct the lift into the chest rather than into the lower back.
Open the arms as wide as the shoulders feel comfortable.
On the exhale, lower the spine back down, vertebra by vertebra, hands coming to meet the ground in sync with the tailbone.
Lift up and down as long as your breath can stay long, with the face and jaw soft, eventually holding the pose up for as long as you feel neither stress nor strain in the body or breath.
Come back to the fetal position slowly to relieve the lower back.
Standing soothing movements
Standing is soothing as it promotes the strong legs we need to move away from danger. These movements from the qigong system help us to move ‘from the belly,’ our seat of intuition that supports us in listening and responding to gut feelings rather than hypervigilant voices of a stressed mind.
In stillness, hold your hands in front of your belly, fingers slightly apart, completing the circle of the pelvis below the navel. In this meditative space, you can connect with the belly and a deeper intuition of ‘what is here right now.’ You can come back to this reflection after each movement.
Allow the arms to swing around the midline of the body – hands like weights at the ends of arms like ropes. Twist through the tissues of the torso, with the knees slightly softened.
Hold an imaginary basketball just higher than eye level. To the extent that your neck feels comfortable, keeping your focus on the ball, rotate it fully in front of your body, bending your knees as you reach it straight down between your inner legs. Then, rotate in the opposite direction.
Rotate one leg at a time in the hip to loosen this area where you can hold much tension, with the leg bent and hands on hips or held upward. Keep the eyes softly focused on one spot to create balance, which helps foster the steady attention that ultimately soothes the mind.
These variations on Viparita Karani (waterfall practice) in yoga raise the legs above the heart and head to allow full rest in the nervous system. Gravity simply allows blood flow down from the lower body. There is a soothing effect in the front of the head as the back of the skull is able to open; this area is where the vagus bundle sits and can tend to become compressed with modern postural habits of hunching and then having to lift the chin to see forward, often to a screen. The supported chest opening allows full breath into the front ribs and slow breathing to evolve without force.
This variation of the final relaxation pose in yoga, Savasana (corpse pose) offers the same meditative space to assimilate experience and the movement before, but lying on the side can be more fetal and soothing. You need enough head support to accommodate the width of the shoulders, a bolster or cushions under the top leg to keep the hips open, and a rolled blanket or cushion to hug and retain space across the chest. Cover yourself with blankets to feel cocooned and stay present with the breath, following the inhalation up the spine and the soothing exhalation down.
Cleve Clin J Med. 2009;76(Suppl.2):S86-S90)
Int J Yoga, 2016; 9: 97-113; Complement Ther Clin Pract, 2011; 17: 141-6
Curr Behav Neurosci Rep, 2016; 3: 328-39
Int J Neurosci, 2005; 115: 1397-413