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Justine Friedman

Finding Equilibrium in an Upside Down World

The calming effects of The Vagus Nerve
The calming effects of The Vagus Nerve

As a child I hated rollercoasters. I went on them to prove I could but if I’m honest they were the worst! 

I hated my body being pulled from side to side and up and down. I hated the whiplash that my neck received and they made me sick to my stomach. 

And now, lo and behold, I find myself on a rollercoaster not of my own choosing, but rather forced on me, and my Jewish brothers and sisters. 

Fasten your seatbelts, there is no end in sight……

Since October 7th, we have been asked to do big and heroic acts. By our fellow brothers and sisters here in Israel, by the world, and by ourselves. 

Somehow it feels easier to do for others. 

To spend time volunteering, making sandwiches, driving displaced people around, donating money, groceries, and clothes. 

These acts of giving connect us to a sense of purpose that allows us to access our humanity and ability to derive meaning in a time when our world has been shattered and we are trying to adapt to a new normal that feels anything but. 

In the last 8 ½ weeks I have experienced a range of emotions, some of them on the same day. A constant rollercoaster ride of depletion, inspiration, uncertainty, fear, hope, anxiety, awe, and motivation. 

When I am in front of an audience and addressing topics of stress, emotional eating, the mind-body connection, and how to nourish ourselves I am alive. I am both giving to those who are before me and doing the work I love. 

This past week, I was asked to speak online for half an hour to Lelsey Kaplan’s Monday Motivation series participants. Since the start of the war, she has hosted a different guest each week to inspire and impart practical tools to ease the difficulty during this ongoing period of uncertainty. 

The challenge for me was not speaking, for that is something that comes naturally to me, rather it was condensing the volume of important tips and information that I have into such a short space of time. How could I do justice to all the tools and which would be the most practical to teach? 

Allow me to share some of the main points here so that they may be of benefit to you too. 

Our bodies are miraculous, they are geared for survival and when we encounter danger the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This allows us to either fight, flee, or freeze, whichever is the most appropriate.  

If we fight or flee our body sends blood flow to our big muscle groups allowing us to have the energy to run or stay and attack. Our breathing is more shallow, our pupils dilate, our vision is focused and the last thing we are thinking of is sitting down and eating a gourmet meal. 

If we freeze, time slows down, our concentration is poor, and basic tasks that we would normally do with ease now seem unbearable or take forever. 

If you have felt a loss of appetite, have cravings for certain foods, feel anxious, experience an increase in heart rate, have difficulty sleeping, and your breathing feels shallow, these are signs your body is in fight-and-flight mode. 

In an ideal situation, our body aims to escape the imminent threat and return to the status quo. 

But as a nation, we are still in a state of war, which means imminent threat and danger, and for this reason, our body continues to experience many of these symptoms. We may not be a soldier in Gaza or on the border, but our minds are hearing the news, and our thoughts race with worry and scenarios of what ifs, and playback like a movie reel (even if we are not watching clips) of recent events. 

We can be safe at home in our own beds and the threat can still feel very real.

As we so often see in normal stressful times, our body very rarely returns to a more calm and restful state. This is evident in the rising health problems in the world such as heart disease, diabetes, elevated blood pressure, cancers, and autoimmune illnesses. 

In the niche group of clients that I work with- women in their 40s and older- this stress can mean nagging symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause, the most common being weight gain, sleep disturbances, mood swings, hot flashes, and night sweats. 

So how can we even begin to support our bodies and learn how to reduce the stress that is not going away and in some cases feels to have intensified? 

What are the benefits of learning these important skills and are they even practical? 

The last thing someone who is feeling stressed or having difficulty functioning wants to hear is that they now need to spend extra time and effort doing something else. 

Here are some of the fundamentals to know: 

  • Stress is normal and in some cases necessary. It can be a driving force for getting things done
  • Ongoing stress impacts physical and emotional health
  • Simple exercises that take no more than 5 minutes at a time can significantly lower stress and keep it from spiraling into chronic stress. 
  • The Vagus Nerve acts like a switch in the body to take the body out of fight-flight-freeze mode into rest-digest-restore mode. 
  • When the Vagus Nerve is activated stress is lower which helps our metabolism to function better, our mood is improved, we can focus better, our blood pressure is lowered, we sleep better, our cravings are reduced, and our blood sugar is more stable.  

There are many resources on how to activate the Vagus Nerve and I always recommend doing these exercises throughout the day- they really don’t take long to do and are incredibly helpful. 

Together with the exercises, certain foods and supplements improve the functioning of The Vagus Nerve. 

I have been implementing these in my own life and recommend my clients to include them as well. I suffered from adrenal burnout in 2015 after the death of my dad and since then this practice has become essential for me. 

They help me to sleep better at night, maintain good energy levels, and prevent after meal and late afternoon dips. It helps to keep my mood stable and reduces anxiety and they have helped me with sugar cravings and balancing my hormone levels in perimenopause. 

By incorporating stress-relieving practices into our daily routine it gives us the ability to traverse the ups and downs of life with greater ease and lowers the impact of stress on our health and well-being. 

We cannot change the external situation and pressures that we are living with. But we can change how we respond to them! 

When we can choose these responses from a place of calm and balance then our life can traverse the rollercoaster with fewer extremes. 

The greatest benefit, besides living a healthier life is, that we can show up in our lives, help those who depend on us, and perform our unique tasks in the world with meaning and purpose. 

What a gift that would be to the world!

About the Author
Justine Friedman is an olah from Johannesburg, South Africa, and has run a successful private practice as a Registered Clinical Dietician and Mindset Mentor since the year 2000. Her mission is to empower women over the age of 40 to nourish themselves and to develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies. She works both in person and via Zoom and gives regular webinars on wellness topics to inspire and guide participants on how to easily implement habits that will improve the quality of their lives. To learn more about the work she does and to be in contact go to www.justinefriedman.com