My daughter got her ears pierced a couple of weekends ago and since we've had to do the morning and nightly ear cleanings, I've been thinking about ears. I notice that when we do the ear cleaning, she gets super calm and still. So I've been adding in a little extra and giving all of the ear some love. And mine, too.
The ear gets its own lucky branch of the the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the body responsible for the rest and digest aspect of our nervous system. It comes from the Latin word vagus meaning "wandering." It begins at the cranium and wanders it's way down to the lower intestine, branching out along the way.
To quote physiopedia, the vagus nerve serves as the body's superhighway, carrying information between the brain and the internal organs and controlling the body's response in times of rest and relaxation. The large nerve originates in the brain and branches out in multiple directions to the neck and torso, where it's responsible for actions such as carrying sensory information from the skin of the ear, controlling the muscles that you use to swallow and speak and influencing your immune system.
Stimulating the vagus nerve through massaging the skin of the ear can help to relieve anxiety, bringing a sense of calm and relaxation, allowing the muscle tension in other parts of our body to relax.
There's so much to the vagus nerve and so many cool things to talk about but this week, I'm keeping it short and sweet and giving you just one easy self massage to help you change your state in a matter of minutes.
Meet your ears. Seriously, consider and reflect for just a moment when was the last time you explored them? Here are 9 steps to doing just that:
Begin by feeling your ears in space with just a thought - using that sense of proprioception where you become aware of a part of your body by just bringing your mind's attention to it.
You can do one at a time or both at the same time. Next begin to massage your ears by gently pulling down on the lobes, using a count of 3 for each gentle pull, working your way up to the middle of the ear for a pull of 3 seconds and finally to the top, gently tractioning upward. Then reverse directions and work your way back down, completing both sides.
Put your hands down at your sides and with a thought, feel your ears again. Notice the difference. You might even notice that your breathing has naturally become slower and smoother as well. You are activating your parasympathic nervous system which regulates your breathing and heart rate. This is called interoception - simply put when you tune into how you are feeling internally.
After you've done a quick check in - do this next step one ear at a time.
You're going to massage the skin of the ear just outside the ear canal, moving in tiny circles. This doesn't require much pressure. Less is more - so go gentle and remember, you're just focusing on the skin of the ear. 10 circles one way, 10 circles the other way. Then moving superiorly ↑ upwards, step up to above the ridge of the ear and do the same.
Notice the difference between your two ears. Switch and apply circular massage to the skin of the other ear.
You can do this next step at the same time or separate. Find the skin behind the ear that's on the skull. Gently traction (pull) the skin downwards and then upwards and then backwards, towards the back of your head. Again, little pressure is required to move the skin. Be gentle with yourself. There's no need to strain. Relax your shoulders, keep breathing, let your tongue rest on the upper palate of your mouth and know that you're doing it right.
You can stay here as long as you like. I like to end with just lightly holding both of my ears and making big circles, much like you would do with your arms if you were doing windmill warm ups. Making 10 or so circles forward and then 10 or so circles backwards.
And then when you feel complete and sense a change of state, pause and once again, tune into your ears (proprioception) and feel the difference. And then tune in (interoception) internally and feel your inner state. Just notice. Sense and feel. However you explored your ears was exactly the right way. You did it perfectly.
You are powerful beyond measure and can regulate your state at any time. You can relieve anxiety or a stressed state by taking care of yourself with a simple ear massage. The branch of the vagus nerve that makes it's way to the skin of the ear can be stimulated to help activate your parasympathic nervous system which will down regulate your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze).
You can do this anywhere at any time for however long feels nourishing for you. Add this trick to your tool kit for the next time you want to calm down an overactive nervous system. I hope you enjoy it.