If you can’t get control of your breathing, try blowing on your thumb.
How Blowing on Your Thumb Reduces Stress
Hidden in your body is a set of key nerves called the vagus nerve. There are two of these expansive nerves in your body, one running down each side from your brainstem and neck into the chest and abdomen, according to the Mayo Clinic. Stimulating these nerves leads to a slowing of the heart, which therefore reduces stress and calms you down.
Putting your thumb in your mouth like a newborn, creating a seal around it, and blowing really hard (without letting any air out) creates elevated intra-abdomnial and intrathoracic pressure inside your body that stimulates the vagus nerve, which slows down your heart rate. This is because you’re attempting to exhale through a blocked airway.
If You Don’t Want to Look Silly, You Don’t Have to Use a Thumb
To perform this modified Valsalva maneuver, you don’t have to use your thumb, which could be somewhat embarrassing if at work or out in a public place. There are other, more subtle techniques.
One is by bearing down as if passing a difficult bowel movement. It’s not quite as noticeable as the thumb trick, but it all depends on how your “bearing down” face looks.
Another method you could try is placing your face in ice water while holding your breath. If you don’t have the luxury of filling up a sink with ice, then placing a piece of ice on your face while holding your breath is another option.
One more way to induce the Valsalva maneuver is to do a headstand.
It’s Not Just for Stress Either
While stimulating the vagus nerve helps reduce stress, it’s also helpful in many other ways. In patients with supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT (a type of abnormal heart rhythm), these vagal maneuvers are used to help slow down messages sent to the heart from the brain and help correct their heart rhythm, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan.
Weightlifters also use these vagal maneuvers to help keep their spines straight and reduce the load on the lumbar and thoracic portions of the spine. The pressure buildup also increases power output, according to My Weight Lifting.
The Mayo Clinic also notes that stimulation of the vagus nerve can soothe depression, anxiety, and even migraine pain.
Vagus nerve stimulation is also used to stop or reduce the severity of seizures in epilepsy patients. However, this can only be done with an implanted pacemaker-like device, so none of the techniques in this article will work on those with epilepsy.
Fight Stress with Other Breathing Techniques
If blowing on your thumb, or one of the other vagal maneuvers above, doesn’t quite work to relieve your stress, there are other breathing techniques you can use to find solace when worried or anxious. The simple act of increasing oxygen and slowing the heart rate can calm your frantic heartbeat quickly.
In an interview with NPR, physician and researcher Esther Sternberg said that taking slow, deep breaths when paranoid or anxious can effectively calm your fight-or-flight reaction down.
Interesting enough, deep breathing alone can help stimulate the vagus nerve. She said, “The relaxation response is controlled by another set of nerves—the main nerve being the vagus nerve. Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the vagus nerve is the brake.”
Which of These Techniques Worked for You?
Whether you choose to soften your stress by blowing on your thumb, “bearing down,” or one of the other methods mentioned above, you don’t have to head home the second stress begins. Instead, get your heartbeat calm and steady, and you’ll find the relief you require. But everyone is different. Which method worked best for you?