In the famous film Mary Poppins, the title character sings to two children about how a little sugar helps the bad-tasting medicine go down. She might have been on to something, not about downing glucose, but about going through what's stressful and unpleasant with vocalizing. From the scientific perspective, humming or singing is one of the easiest ways to get your anxiety to take a hike.
How humming helps
The vagus nerve is a long, critical nerve that wanders from your brain all the way down your neck, chest and abdomen, connecting the brain stem to the body. Subsequently, it's associated with a host of different physical functions including swallowing, taste, digestion and heart rate. Activating this nerve basically tells your brain all is well, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to relax you.
Now, your voice box (larynx) is connected to your vagus nerve. Subsequently, when you hum or sing, you naturally activate it. In fact, scientists think that this might be why techniques promoted in Yoga--for instance, gurgling or using buzzing bee or "om" meditations--gets a good result. On top of this stimulation, humming requires you to control your inhalations and exhalations. Experts know that, even without humming, the vagus nerve links to respiration, and that slowing down exhalation has a positive effect for calm, activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Lastly, your choice of music can come into play, too. Improvising can be a powerful way to soothe yourself simply because of its freedom. But music is fabulous at evoking emotional response and, as a result, does a great job assisting in memory recall. So if you hum a song you associate with calm, happiness or courage, it can activate those feelings for you again. Play around and see what seems to work best for you individually, but if you need a starting point, these well-known tracks could get you up and running.
- Canon in D Major (Johann Pachelbel)
- Claire de Lune (Claude Debussy)
- Weightless (Marconi Union)
- Watermark (Enya)
- Someone Like You (Adele)
- High and Dry (Radiohead)
- Let It Be (The Beatles)
- Where Are You Going (Dave Matthews Band)
- Now We Are Free (Hans Zimmer, Gladiator)
- Whisper of a Thrill (Thomas Newman, Meet Joe Black)
Of course, you can't just sit there in a meeting humming to yourself. But you could easily do it in the frantic tornado of rush hour, before you're set to present a big project or at the end of a long day to wind down. Just don't get caught up in whether you're a "good" singer. You're not out there trying to judge yourself and win American Idol. You're out there to win life, to show the world that you are at your own helm and won't be conquered. Keep your eye on the prize, because it's right in front of you.