How To Use Humming To Calm Anxiety

Photographed by Flora Maclean.
For my entire life I have been told to use my indoor voice. Every school report contained the words "needs to stop talking and distracting others" and I spent the majority of my teenage years in drama class shouting improvisations as if I were filming a scene in Marriage Story. All of which is to say that during my 24 years of life, I have always overworked my voice, so when I heard about voice therapy, it sounded like something I could definitely get on board with.
You might think that vocal therapy is for healing physical symptoms like hoarseness by soothing inflamed vocal cords but apparently it can be used to fix much, much more. In recent years, vocal therapists have begun to use vocal exercises as a way to release stress build-up and to improve our mental wellbeing. Having felt a little stressed of late due to *gestures vaguely at the world* I decided to see if it could work for me and booked a free consultation with Maartje Monné, a speech language pathologist who runs her own voice care practice in France. In our discussion, she told me that vocal therapy not only has the capability to reduce irritation on the vocal folds but can also stimulate the vagus nerve, aka our body's natural stress reliever. 
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The longest cranial nerve in the human body, the vagus nerve is the key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to turn off our fight-or-flight response in times of extreme stress. Running from the base of the brain to the abdomen, the vagus nerve acts as a communicator between the mind and body, sending signals to our brain to lower our heart rate and regulate our breathing when we feel under threat. Often referred to as the 'rest and digest' system, the parasympathetic nervous system, including the vagus nerve, works to overpower the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for putting us in panic mode), leaving us feeling calmer and more relaxed.
Given that the vagus nerve is also connected to the laryngeal muscles (that's the voice box to you and me), Monné tells me that we are capable of intentionally stimulating our vagus nerve through our vocal folds, which then sends signals to our brain to chill ourselves out. So how to do this? Apparently the most effective method is simply humming, singing or chanting. According to Monné, vibrating the vocal folds for long enough stimulates other components of the vagus nerve, sending signals to the mind and body to relax which in turn will regulate many functions in your body. Essentially, says Monné, this means you can 'hack' your nervous system to help you calm down in anxious situations.
While the method can be used in specific moments of stress, like before a big presentation, Monné suggests doing vocal therapy for 5-10 minutes every morning to improve your overall feeling of wellbeing. Following her advice, I attempted my first voice healing session the morning after our chat, sitting with my feet firmly on the floor and drinking a glass of water. Emulating her short demonstration, I closed my eyes and kept a steady hum on and off for around five minutes, allowing my voice to find a natural pitch that didn’t cause any straining. Initially I found the sound rather annoying and loud in my inner ear but eventually I managed to tune it out, instead diverting my attention to the sensation in my throat. 
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While humming I realised that I found the method easier than traditional meditation as it allowed me to concentrate on the feeling of vibrations on my vocal folds, leaving less mental space for distracting thoughts to creep in. To tap into the exercise even more, I placed the palms of my hands gently on my throat and chest, focusing on the physical vibration throughout the humming. When the timer rang after five minutes, I noticed a visible relaxation in my normally tense posture and felt a distinct air of calmness that bordered on sleepy. My fellow voice healing experimenter (my boyfriend) also noted that he felt "a deep fuzziness all over" which he likened to the effect of receiving a neck massage.
Like any therapy, vocal healing has to be repeated to see any real benefit, but from my short experience it's worth doing the exercises alone in order to centre yourself, much like deep breathing during a yoga class. The benefits of strengthening your vagus nerve (or improving 'vagal tone') carry a lot of weight in the wellness community, with many crediting the method with lessening anxiety or feelings of depression. There are multiple scientific studies that back up these claims, including one from the American Journal Of Psychiatry which showed that patients with severe depression who were treated with vagus nerve stimulation alongside usual medications and therapy improved far more than those who received just their regular treatments.
While there are plenty of other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve (including plunging yourself into freezing cold water), humming offers an easy way into the practice, requiring little more than a comfy chair and five minutes of uninterrupted alone time. After trying it out for myself, I'd say that vocal therapy by way of humming could be a good thing to keep in your back pocket in times of nervousness or just when you are in need of a clear mind ahead of a big day. You may feel strange doing it but consider it your body's secret (and free) way of helping you out in times of stress. If you ask me, that's worth sounding a little bit silly.
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, please contact Anxiety UK, Mind or the Samaritans.

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