You know that finals-week feeling where it’s as if all your assignments and exams have turned into fully grown elephants that are sitting on your chest? Or they’ve turned into a medieval army, shooting arrows at you while you sleep? Or they’ve turned into twenty schoolchildren, playing tug of war with your sanity? Personally, I’ve tried about a hundred things to loosen up that anxiety. Drinking tea, journaling, meditating, you name it. Nothing seemed to make a lasting impact. But this past finals week, I got off TikTok medical advice and actually put some research into my personal stress management.
I found out that I didn’t have to complete all my work to feel relaxed; this had been a stubborn belief that kept me up late or stuck me in the library all weekend. I could go over my own head, go right to the place where the anxiety was actually happening: my body. The vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve, is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you’ve taken a basic biology class, you’ll know that’s the ‘rest and digest’ side of things. As many of us learn in school, when we put this nerve to work, our heart rate slows and our cortisol drops.
In exam season, we’re stuck in “fight or flight” almost all the time. Cortisol is high, adrenaline is high; basically, every hormone that makes you feel stressed is jacked up (I learned this in my life science GE, PHYSI 5 – highly recommend). This is because we perceive, for example, our French final, as if it is a lion chasing us. In reality, though, it’s just me saying “oui oui” a few times and regurgitating some vocab. I don’t need to be in fight or flight. And this is where the vagus nerve stimulation comes in.
I recently learned how to stimulate this nerve, activating my parasympathetic nervous system and triggering rest and digest. Basically, I can physiologically force myself to calm down through deep, slow breathing, or gently stretching my neck to one side. Now, finals obviously isn’t the time to accidentally break my own neck, so I did some research online. Thankfully, there is strong evidence and research regarding the simulation of this nerve. With about two seconds of research, I found ten articles about this nerve and several five-minute sessions that calmed me right down. Trust me, it feels like I’m pressing the reset button on my mental state.
Now, my personal success with this relaxation strategy is not to discredit working things out in your mind. Journal and go to therapy if that works for you. This hack just helps me get past my own anxiety. So often, I can’t work because I’m too stressed about said work. And that’s just ridiculous. By going over my own head, I can manually get rid of that stress in my body. Stimulating the vagus nerve doesn’t solve all of my problems, but it sure makes me feel better equipped to deal with them.
So, I’m taking control of my stress levels! I’m tapping the elephant sitting on my chest on the shoulder, and saying, “Sorry, sir. It’s time for you to get up. I’ve got a French quiz to handle.” And he’s saying “oui oui” and lumbering off, giving me the space I need to ace these finals.