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Why Doing Nothing Is Overwhelming to Your Brain

Having NOTHING to do can be pure freedom. Joy. Exhilarating. One of my favorite comedians puts it perfectly here. Have you ever asked an adult their weekend plans, and they respond with "Nothing. Nothing at all."? They almost always have a smile on their face. No plans and no rules can be, well, the best. There are times however, when "doing nothing" ceases to scream "FREEDOM" and starts to yell an overwhelming, "OH NO WHAT AM I DOING." Let me explain the good and bad types of "nothing" and why the bad kind can overwhelm you into oblivion. 

Types of "nothing"

1. Relaxing and rejuvenating nothing: You've finally gotten a break from the rat race. You've gone vacation, or maybe just have a free weekend. Your body has officially flipped into "rest and digest" and is clearing toxins and mending broken parts. You're becoming more whole, and gaining health and mental clarity. This can even be achieved by short daily meditation. It's a very conscious, relaxing, rejuvenating type of nothing. 

2. Physically disruptive nothing: You're sitting at a desk all day at a job you (maybe) remotely enjoy. You've netflix-binged PAST the point where you're actually paying attention. You're stuck in traffic. You're physically "doing nothing" that your body was created, or has evolved to do. Disruptive nothing often involves staring at a screen for hours with your shoulders slouched forward, i.e. long periods of technology use. So why does this kind of physical nothingness make your body freak out?

First a little science lesson (I swear this is related, keep reading.)

You have a brain (see?... Science is easy). Shooting out from your brain you have 12 special nerves called cranial nerves. These nerves are typically pretty short, traveling to your eyes, nose, tongue, stuff in your head, etc. You have a very special cranial nerve, that is very long and wandering: The Vagus Nerve. Not "Vegas" like where your friend's bachelorette party took a weird turn, and now you wince when any time you see a feather boa. It's pronounced the same way, but what we're really going for is vagabond --> homeless wanderer --> the wandering (long) vagus nerve.

Your vagus nerves hangs down off your brain like a string from a balloon. It has 3 parts:

  • One part goes to your heart and diaphragm, telling your heart to beat, and your diaphragm to help you breath (thanks Vagus, 'preciate it),
  • a second part that goes to your guts, telling them how and when to break down food,
  • and a third part that sends information back to your brain about your environment.

This 3rd part is important because it tells your brain if you're in a safe situation, comfortable, supported, able to relax, or in danger. This part of the Vagus nerve decides "can I chill?" or "should I freak out?" A healthy body and healthy Vagus nerve will be able to digest food properly, remain calm in varying situations, tolerate loud noises and disruptions, and detox from harmful substances.

A weak or irritated vagus nerve leads to *danger alarms* going off at all the wrong times. This can cause emotional outbursts, poor digestion, strange breathing patterns, and that feeling of being ALL THE WAY OVERWHELMED. Life can seem a lot harder than it actually is when your Vagus nerve is on the fritz. Your brain can become frazzled, feel unsafe, uncomfortable, and on the defense, even when everything is fine!

 What shrinks and simultaneously pisses off my vagus nerve?

  • Doing that physically disruptive kind of nothing. Sitting still too long without any fulfillment, movement, or engagement (often in front of a screen, or at your desk). 
  • Crappy posture, again, likely at a desk or in front of a screen. Your back hunches, stressing out your neck muscles that are positioned around the path of the vagus nerve. The tighter the neck, the more tension on the Vagus nerve and the more miffed it gets.
  • Completely ignoring your breathing patterns. Shallow breaths that move mostly your shoulders don't do your vagus nerve much good. The Vagus nerve is connected to your diaphragm, so only DEEP belly breathing stimulates it.
These things can put your body in a constant state of fight-or-flight, like an imaginary cheetah is chasing you. Your brain gets nervous, loud noises frighten or distract you, your heart races, and your belly stops digesting food properly.

    How do I avoid the overwhelm?

    You'd like to feel safe, comfortable, and calm... yes? You'd like to feel supported by your peers, friends, and family? Best to keep that vagus nerve happy and toned then!

    • MOVE! Go for a walk. Have dance party. Cook something. Clean something. Run around giving high-fives to strangers. Any movement will do! Movement activates your brain stem where the Vagus nerve begins, keeping it toned, healthy, and sending proper signals.
    • Decrease stress on your body tissues. Stressed out body tissues are inflamed, and don't function optimally. Since the vagus nerve is tightly tied with our heart, lungs, and intestines, we need to keep the organ stress down in order to help our brain and nervous system. Antioxidants fight cellular stress, Vitamin E keeps your brain from aging, and a good high quality fish oil decreases the inflammation in your heart and brain --- all leading to a happier Vagus nerve.
    • Stick around people that are relaxed and positive. Friendly and trustworthy peeps affect much more than your mood!

    This Vagus nerve is so important that researchers are considering a surgical solution. Studies on little mechanical Vagus nerve pacemakers have started as a possible therapy for those with mental health disorders. But that's not available yet, and sliiiiightly more invasive than going for a walk, adding key nutrition, and good friends, so let's start with those instead!

    References: Susan Bennet,, Dr. Michael Hall of the NeuroLife Institute.

    Hannah Anderson
    Hannah Anderson