A friend of mine once pooped her pants in a restaurant and is still haunted by the memory of the incident. She’s now first to admit—always with a smirk on her face—”that sh*t changes you.” And I’m sure it does, which is why you might want to learn about vagus nerve breathing exercises before accidental bathroom disasters strike.
As a reminder, the vagus nerve is responsible whenever you experience the poop sweats—that bodily signal that you’re about to reenact the bridal-shop scene from Bridesmaids. “The vagus nerve starts in the brain and supplies nerve fibers to the heart, diaphragm, organs, and the gut, from the esophagus, stomach, small and large bowels,” says Avanish Aggarwal, MD, gastroenterologist. “It carries signals from the brain to the gut and helps regulate bowel movements. It also helps control and regulate the function of various organs, glands, and involuntary muscles throughout the body, such as vocalization, swallowing, heart rate, respiration, gastric secretion, and intestinal motility.”
The nerve also controls peristalsis, which is an involuntary constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles that’s responsible for an urgency to go to the bathroom. The vagus nerve can also be triggered by stress, and that desire for elimination is essentially your body’s un-ideal relaxation technique. It’s why nervous poops are a very real thing.
“Breathing practices can help you relax and ‘hold it’ if you have a strong urge to go to the bathroom when you’re not near a bathroom.” —Avanti Kumar-Singh, MD
“The urge to go to the bathroom when the vagus nerve is stimulated is part of the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Ayurvedic wellness expert Avanti Kumar-Singh, MD. “Breathing practices can help you relax and ‘hold it’ if you have a strong urge to go to the bathroom when you’re not near a bathroom… Slowing down the breath will help to calm the anxiety you might feel in this situation—anxiety which might cause an unwanted accident.” The exhale of the breath is calming, so by extending the exhale—making it longer than the inhale—you will calm your nervous system and your anxiety,” says Dr. Singh.
Below find six breathing exercises that can help calm the vagus nerve (and urge to self-evacuate when you’re not near a bathroom).
6 vagus nerve breathing exercises to save you from an urgent bathroom accident
1. 4-7-8 breathing
This technique is also helpful for sleep and relaxation, according to meditation and breathwork expert Kristina Headrick. To practice the 4-7-8 technique, you breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold your exhale for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds.
2. Counting your breaths
Want something simpler? Count each breath, one-by-one. “Visualize the air going into the nose, and then watch it come out, and one can count that normal breathing process,” says Dr. Aggarwal. “If you lose track, you go back to one and start counting the breathing again. You do this for a prescribed amount of time.”
3. Low belly inhales with a long exhale
“I like to start all mediations I teach with a series of deep, low-belly inhales, followed by a longer exhale,” says Headrick. “The longer exhales are how you ‘hack’ the vagus nerve.”
4. Link to a count
“Count your natural exhale, and increase the count by one or two breaths,” says Dr. Kumar-Singh. “For example, if it’s a natural count of two, increase it to three.”
5. Link to a count
“Coordinate your breath with a simple movement,” says Dr. Kumar-Singh. “Then, to lengthen the exhale, add a second movement. For example, start by coordinating your exhale with lowering your arms from above your head, all the way down to your sides. Then add a pause halfway down before continuing to your sides.”
6. Link to an affirmation
“In your mind, repeat an affirmation as you exhale,” says Dr. Kumar-Singh. “Then to lengthen the exhale, add a few words onto the affirmation. For example, say ‘I am calm.’ Then add on and say ‘I am calm and strong.’”
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