The parasympathetic nervous system is probably not at the top of your list of things to worry about as a leader or high-performance team member. It is probably not on any list at all. However, if you want to reduce stress and reach peak performance, after reading this maybe it will be.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the system that regulates your ‘rest and digest’ mode as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system which governs our most basic ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response to stimulus.

Central to the function of the parasympathetic nervous system is the Vagus Nerve, a nerve that moves from the base of the brain towards the throat, through the heart and lungs and into the digestive organs. Manipulating the vagus nerve is a safe and easy way to reduce stress and anxiety.

Pressure is useful for high-performers. It keeps us sharp and motivated. Too much pressure too often turns to stress and anxiety which affect us reaching optimum performance in a number of ways. It can impair thinking and decision making on the one hand through to undermining our immune system on the other.

The vagus nerve
The vagus nerve

By stimulating the vagus nerve, the sympathetic nervous system, the one that controls our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, is suppressed and our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This puts us in a relaxed state. A cocktail of ‘feel-good’ chemicals is released such as oxytocin and prolactin, whilst production of the stress hormone cortisol is reduced. This, in turn, can lead to improved performance.

The great news is that stimulating the vagus nerve is surprisingly easy, safe and fast. It involves nothing more than a simple breathing technique called diaphragmatic breathing. The results are guaranteed to be instantaneous. This is no alternative medicine technique but a well documented and accepted practice. Diaphragmatic breathing techniques appear on the NHS website amongst other places as a way of dealing with stress and anxiety and are used by high-performers across numerous disciplines to control unfavourable outputs of stress.

Diaphragmatic breathing involves ‘belly breathing’, simply taking deep breaths that involve your entire abdomen rather than the shallow chest breathing that most of us normally do. It also involves slowing down our breathing and concentrating more on exhaling than on inhalation.

How to stimulate your Vagus nerve through diaphragmatic breathing

  • Find a quiet place and sit in a comfortable position with your back off your chair and your head tilted forward towards your chest. Rest your hands on your knees with your palms facing up and close your eyes. It helps to visualise a place where you feel relaxed and to hold that image.
  • Next concentrate on your breathing. Take a deep, slow, breath over the space of about four seconds. Next, exhale for twice the time you inhaled. Repeat this ten times.
  • Next graduate on to five in, ten out for another 10 times followed by six in, 12 out for a final ten breaths.

Ten minutes of following this technique are enough for most people to start to instantly feel that they have moved from a stressed to a calm state. You may feel a little drowsy and rather relaxed. You have stimulated your Vagus nerve and activated your parasympathetic nervous system. You can do this whenever you are feeling stressed and anxious to return to a mental state more commensurate with being a top performer.