Health & Fitness | June 14, 2022 1:14 pm

Will This TikTok Hack Actually Relieve Stress During a Workday?

In a viral video, Dr. Karan Raj bills the tip as an "instant tool to calm down"

A man gargling water in an old advertisement.
Gargling: not just for getting rid of a sore throat!
Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

Human beings may have removed themselves from the food chain millions of years ago, but the nervous system never really got the memo. It still functions as if we’re fighting (or fleeing) for our lives in a dangerous savanna or jungle, engaging the sympathetic nervous system whenever we’re confronted with a stressor, no matter how minor the situation may compare to being eaten alive.

There’s a reason you can literally feel stress ahead of a high-stakes meeting, intimidating workout class or daunting conversation with a significant other. Your body catalyzes a chain of commensurate reactions — the pupils dilate, heart rate accelerates, blood pressure soars, glucose is released en masse and and anything that could get in the way of your performance (the stomach, the bladder, the pancreas, the intestines) is temporarily blocked.

Basically, the body goes into full fire-drill mode. It’s a handy flip to switch, but far too many of us now live and die (way earlier than we should) by it; the sympathetic nervous system definitely shouldn’t be activated five times a day, in response to trafficked commutes, project deadlines, too-intense exercise sessions or squabbles with loved ones. But our “go” lifestyle feeds it a relentless diet of stressful content to react to.

Ideally, you’re finding times in your day to activate the sympathetic nervous system’s partner in the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system. It has an opposite, complementary impact on the body, encouraging a variety of processes that help the body relax. For instance, the parasympathetic nervous system slows the heartbeat, constricts the pupils, eases respiratory rate and helps organs (the digestive system, the urinary tract, the liver) perform their duties in a calm, effective manner.

How to access the parasympathetic nervous system, though? It’s difficult — especially if you’re used to crammed days that don’t feel like they really calm down until you sit down in front of the TV at night. But there are some methods at our disposal. Make time to take walks in nature (without your phone!), play gently with pets or children and practice yoga or meditation.

The last option, in fact, emphasizes the connection between the parasympathetic nervous system and breathwork. Thoughtful breathing exercises allow you to “tap in” to this oft-spurned half of your nervous network; doing so consistently won’t just make you happier for an afternoon, it could dramatically improve your long-term health, reducing your risk of cardiac disease, stroke, migraines and digestive issues. No guarantees, but it will probably add years to your life, too. Most pupils adhere to the celebrated “box breathing” method.

There’s another clever hack out there, courtesy of TikTok, that could help you get reacquainted with the parasympathetic nervous system. It involves activating the vagus nerve, which functions as the body’s downregulationg highway — it sends impulses from the brain to the body, and vice versa, alerting the whole network when it’s time to chill out.

According to Dr. Karan Raj, who frequently goes viral for medical advice on the social media platform, you can reach the vagus nerve by gargling, humming or singing. “”When you do any of these you’re activating the muscles of the back of the throat and the vocal cords which are connected to the vagus nerve,” he explains in a video. “[This will help you] access a parasympathetic state more easily, [which will] make you feel relaxed.”

Dr. Raj says it’s possible to see results immediately (just 10 seconds of humming), and urges: “Do this now to instantly calm down and improve your resilience to stress.” It’s refreshing, as someone who routinely wades through the muck of online wellness tips and tricks, to hear something so turn-key, free and effective.

Seriously, go ahead and try it yourself. It works. The vagus nerve probably isn’t pulling all the weight here, considering A) these actions necessitate mindfulness, which is always good, and B) we’ve all know that music makes us happy. But this is as simple a backdoor to your parasympathetic nervous system you’ll find. My personal recommendation? Hum for a few minutes, repeating a word or phrase (either out loud, or in your mind all the while). Just, please, don’t try squeezing this into a chaotic subway ride home. The parasympathetic nervous system prefers some peace and quiet.