Viva Vagus! Instant help for stressed students
Some of our ASA students are tackling their GCSE exams this week. For our international ASA friends, these can be extremely stressful. For them, and the rest of us, help is at hand.
You have within you a very simple tool to help melt your anxiety, and you can use it at any time. It’s the Vagus. No, I’m not talking about the gambling capital in the U.S. I’m talking about the biggest nerve in the body that can empower you to relax after you’ve had a surge of adrenaline - like walking into the classroom to sit an exam.
I won’t blind you with science, but you can ‘tone’ this vagus nerve by doing the following when you’re about to take your exams.
Relax your belly
Breathe in lightly and slowly through your nose on a count of four.
Breathe out slowly through your lips on a count of six.
Repeat for ten cycles, increasing your out-breath to ten beats.
Why through the nose?
Nasal breathing helps your body create nitrous oxide which will relax you. Mouth breathing will lead you to hyperventilate.
Why should you breathe out more slowly? Two reasons:
It will slow down your heart rate. Your heart rate naturally increases when you breathe in, and slows down when you breathe out. This is called 'Vagal tone'. What’s going on? Your vagus nerve is being activated during the out breath, and you want to sustain this relaxation. Try it: take your pulse during an inhale, then compare it to your heart rate during an exhale. You'll find that your heart rate is slightly slower during your out breath, that's because your vagus is doing its job.
Breathing our more slowly also helps you to boost your carbon dioxide levels in your body.
That sounds stupid! Don't I need more oxygen when I'm stressed?
Actually, we do need a certain level of CO2 in our system to thrive. It opens up our airways and our circulation. If we have too much oxygen and not enough CO2, our airways and blood flow begin to constrict, and we feel stress.
This boosting of CO2 is the reason for the old remedy of putting a bag on the head of a person having a panic attack.
But you don’t have to go to that extreme, just slow your breathing down, do it through the nose, and especially slow down your out-breath.
For people with Spotify here's an excellent track to help you slow down your breathing. It's not a guided visualization, just relaxing music.
Good luck with your exams, students!
Bryan Bounds is the founder and head of education at the American School of Acting, providing acting skills for the 21st century. Applications now open for our Autumn 12-week course. For more details click here, and breathe slowly.