Navigating “The New Normal”

As I sat down to write this article I was struck by how difficult it was to decide what to write about – What can I provide to readers during this time of stress and uncertainty – what would not seem trite or pollyannaish. As I sat quietly pondering this, I began to notice the heaviness that has been in the air the past month or so. It seems this topic might be what’s up to write about. We are all feeling the stress of the COVID-19 impact. It’s beginning to weigh on all of us.

There is the stress of having to live in what is being tagged as “the new normal.” What this looks like in most people’s lives right now is anything but normal. Being quarantined by yourself with your only social outlet being technology-based gatherings or maybe a nod to a fellow customer as you stand six feet away in the grocery store; being quarantined with your family with no time to be by yourself, managing online schooling for your kids, not being able to move about freely and congregate in social environments (malls, theaters, places of worship, parks, playgrounds, the homes of family and friends, and so on); struggling to find a work-life balance as you bring your working space into your home; missing the physical contact received through a handshake or a hug; worrying about you or someone you love contracting the virus; worrying about the financial impact of a lost job or business; experiencing the loss of someone you love due to complications from the virus – all of these effects have left us with a collective trauma response.

A hallmark of trauma experience is uncertainty. And, uncertainty often creates a sense of tension and anxiety as the autonomic nervous system (ANS) becomes dysregulated in its response to the environment. The ANS consists of an activating branch (the sympathetic nervous system) and a calming branch (the parasympathetic nervous system). Often when we experience high levels of stress the sympathetic branch of the ANS can get stuck on overdrive and the parasympathetic seems to go offline – this is where we find ourselves today.

So, what can we do to manage this tension so that we can experience some sense of well-being in these unfamiliar times? We need to make sure our parasympathetic nervous system is awake and functioning! To highlight how this can be done I want to share some ideas from Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and the concept of “vagal toning.” I think this research can shed some light on simple strategies that could have a profound effect on your ability to stabilize anxiety and tension.


Research has shown a strong connection between poor vagus nerve toning and anxiety. The vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve, is the longest nerve in the body. It connects the brain with some major systems involved with the mind-body connection. So
why are we concerned with the vagus nerve? Well, it regulates the autonomic nervous system, resulting in a well-balanced dance between activation and calming. Porges refers to this interplay as our “social engagement system.” It can help us navigate relationships and become more flexible in our coping styles – just what we need right now!

Porges uses the example of a car to help explain how the polyvagal system works. Imagine the sympathetic nervous system is the gas pedal of your car– it revs your system up. And, the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake system – it slows things down. The brake system is where the vagus nerve enters the picture. There are two branches of the vagus nerve – the dorsal branch and the ventral branch. Both calm the body, but in different ways. The dorsal branch triggers a shutdown of the system leading to the experience of feeling immobilized or dissociated and a pulling away from connecting with others – it’s like the emergency brake of your car. The ventral branch dampens the body’s regularly active state and it supports feelings of safety and emotional connection to others in our social environment – it’s like the foot brake on your car. Sometimes these systems malfunction, requiring a tune-up.

Toning or refining the ventral branch of the vagus nerve can facilitate a sense of well-being. Healthy vagal toning is associated with less anxiety and more stress resilience. It also has been correlated with improved functioning of several body systems leading to better blood sugar regulation, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, improved digestion and reduced migraines.
There are simple, easy-to-do practices you can employ that help you with vagal toning. I’ve provided a brief list of possibilities below. Pick those that resonate with you and begin your exploration of vagal toning. And, please note:


What: Humming
How: Just hum; don’t be shy, just hum with whatever you’re doing
Why: Stimulates ventral branch of vagus nerve

What: Voo Breath
 (for 3 repetitions) 1. Inhale slowly into diaphragm 2. On exhale say the word voo in a deep voice (think foghorn)
Why: Stimulates ventral branch of vagus nerve

What: Chanting
How: Individually or as a group – whatever interests you more! You could start with “Om”
Why: Stimulates ventral branch of vagus nerve

What: Slow breathing
 1. Gently inhale air into your diaphragm (imagine your tummy is a balloon being blown up) 2. Exhale – allowing your stomach to contract 3. Repeat with rhythmic breathing
Why: Activates pathways that inhibit sympathetic activation (fight/flight/ freeze) and social shutdown

What: Cold water facial immersion
How: After a warm shower or After exercise or Just as a stand-alone activity
Why: Reactivates parasympathetic system via vagus nerve stimulation

Yoga Practice
How: Choose a platform and begin a regular practice
Why: Regulates the autonomic nervous system

What: Loving kindness meditation
How: Google around – there are many good ones out there. I appreciate Sharon Salzburg’s loving kindness meditations.
Why: Increases positive emotions, which increases social connection and improves vagal tone

What: Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training (Paced Breathing)
How: 1. Find out your optimal HRV *there are systems that can do this *the average is 6 breaths per minute 2. Practice breathing with a pacer for 20 minutes/day (there are good apps for both iPhone and Android)
Why: Increases vagal nerve activity