Full warning — this post is about to get a little bit nerdy. We’re diving into some neurobiology in order to understand why stressful situations can feel so…well…stressful! Here’s a short tour of the nervous system that might help you navigate your next conflict.

Introducing two key parts of the brain!

First, meet the limbic system! This walnut sized piece of the brain is responsible for your instinctual responses, namely the self-preserving ones like aggression. It turns on in stressful situations to protect you. 

And now, the prefrontal cortex! Situated at the front of your brain, this is your rational decision maker. It houses your ability to logically interpret situations and determine your responses to them. 

The limbic system is super crucial in helping us stay alive — it turns on when stress is present. In days of old, the limbic system was able to handle stressful situations all on its own (think: a tiger is about to eat you! The limbic system pumps your body with adrenaline and you bolt out of there). The prefrontal cortex only had to turn on later, when the stress was over and you needed to logically work out how to avoid the tiger next time. 

But modern day stressful situations are much more complex (think: a conflict with your child or spouse). In these situations, just our limbic system won’t cut it. We can’t just bolt out, we have to think, empathize, and communicate our way out. In short, we need our prefrontal cortex.  

Here’s where things get tricky. These two parts of the brain — the limbic and the prefrontal cortex — they don’t play so well together. When the limbic system is active, it’s harder to use your prefrontal cortex. In other words, when you’re worked up, you can’t think straight.

As you can see, there’s a little bit of a conflict here: when you enter a stressful situation, your limbic system floods your body with chemicals that make sure you are ready to win an aggressive encounter (remember fight-or-flight? Your muscles tense, your blood gets pumping, your breathing becomes fast and shallow). Because these chemicals are coursing through your body, your thinking-brain loses more and more control. As a result of not being able to think, the stressful situation persists. And as a result of the stressful situation persisting, you become less able to think. My limbic system is getting activated just thinking about it…

So what is a brain-under-duress to do?

You call on the almighty power of the vagus nerve. Of the approximately seven trillion nerves in the human body, a select 12 have the honor of running directly out from the base of the brain — they’re called the cranial nerves. And out of these, the largest of them all is the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve functions to tell the limbic system whether it should keep up the good work or stop and calm down. In other words, the vagus nerve is either the kid who starts chanting “fight! fight! fight!” or the kid who yells “stop!”. New research shows us that you can cause your vagus nerve to send the “stop” signals to the limbic system by taking some key actions. 

Here are some actions you can take:

  • Step away.

The more stress signals your body takes in — from the angry look on your partner’s face to the tone of your own voice — the more stress chemicals the limbic system releases into your body. The best way to break the cycle is to leave it. Step away and go for a walk if possible, or if not, at least count to ten slowly in your head to give your vagus nerve the time it needs to tell your limbic system to quiet down.

  • Breathe.

Deep belly breathing is especially useful to disengage the limbic system. The vagus nerve extends all the way into the abdomen and reacts to the sensation of deep belly breaths. Focusing on the breath for a count of four seconds in and four seconds out will help the fight-or-flight feeling subside so that your thinking brain can reengage.

  • Activate the senses.

Is there a calming scent, feel, or sound you can procure? The vagus nerve travels all around the face, where four of our five senses pick up stimuli. Take a moment to fill your senses with soothing things — whether it is rubbing lavender oil lotion on your hands, cuddling with the family pet, or listening to enjoyable music — is proven to calm the limbic system.

  • Temperature.

Even though most of us would find a cold shower the exact opposite of calming, cold temperature seems to activate the vagus nerve to send calming signals to the brain. Even just a splash of cold water to the face will do.

If you send enough of these signals to the limbic system, it hushes down so that the thinking part of your brain can hear itself think.