What is the vagus nerve and how on earth do we exercise it? It’s a part of your body that you don’t hear much about, but it constantly works to balance out your over-stressed nervous system. Learning how the vagus nerve works and some simple tricks for stimulating it can help you be more resilient under stress and increase your overall feelings of wellbeing—and who doesn’t need that?
A Short Lesson on the Nervous System
Your nervous system is comprised of several subsets of nerve systems. The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is made up of all the nerves that branch out in the body. The PNS includes the somatic nervous system, which enables your voluntary movements (like waving goodbye) and the autonomic nervous system, which performs bodily functions without you actively thinking about them (like breathing). The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic side increases alertness, energy, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. You’ve probably read many articles about the sympathetic nervous system and its role in our “fight or flight” response. The articles usually mention tigers chasing you. The sympathetic nervous system helps you with all the “to-doing” that you do all day; however, you’re also probably aware that lifestyle habits (all those tigers) tend to overstimulate your sympathetic nervous system, which leads to chronic spikes in cortisol and adrenaline hormone production. This in turn causes many health problems, including digestive distress, insomnia, anxiety and so much more.
The parasympathetic nervous system helps balance the sympathetic nervous system. It’s often referred to as the “rest and digest” part of your autonomic nervous system because it triggers relaxation in the body.
What is the Vagus Nerve and What Does It Do?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It starts at your brainstem and carries electrical signals between your brain and your neck, chest, heart, lungs, abdomen and digestive tract. The vagus nerve “wanders” through the body (vagus means “wandering” in Latin) and literally connects your brain with your gut, facilitating those “gut reactions” you may be very familiar with!
The vagus nerve is heavily involved with regulating your parasympathetic nervous system and many functions of your body, including immune system response, digestion, heart rate and breathing. For example, when you go to a haunted house and a zombie leaps out and scares you, your vagus nerve works to decrease your heart rate after your “fight or flight” response.
Both responses are automatic; however, since we are often in a constant stressful state, you can learn to engage your “secret weapon” (as the vagus nerve is often called) on purpose! Proactively stimulating your vagus nerve increases what experts call “vagal tone.” The more vagal tone you have, the quicker your body recovers from stress. The word “stimulate” sounds like the opposite of inducing calm, but to put it another way, using some simple techniques, you can trigger the vagus nerve to do its job. Learning how to stimulate your vagus nerve can help you consciously induce relaxation so that your body is better at it in that moment and in the future.
How to “Exercise” Your Vagus Nerve
There are many ways to stimulate your vagus nerve. They are simple, and some may seem a little odd!
Breathe Deeply: This works in two ways: first, if you focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you take your attention away from what’s stressing you. Second, if you breathe deeply from your belly and exhale longer than you inhale, that physical act triggers the relaxation response from your vagus nerve.
Gargle, Sing or Sigh Loudly: The vibration of your vocal cords and throat stimulates the vagus nerve to soothe your parasympathetic nervous system. These may seem weird but notice that we tend to sigh (or sing) when we are stressed, which makes us feel better. Who knew we came with built-in self-soothing instincts?
Meditate: It makes sense now why meditation is soothing to us. It usually includes deep, focused breathing and sometimes OMing, which vibrates the vocal cords as well. Another indication that our ancient ancestors knew how to cope before the invention of antidepressants.
Get a Massage: Massaging the neck and shoulders helps improve vagal tone. There is also evidence that a foot massage using reflexology can help as well.
Practice Yoga: Much of yoga involves focused breath work, so it’s no surprise that partaking in regular sessions keeps your vagus very happy.
Cold Water Tricks: Immersing your face in cold water, splashing cold water on your face or holding an ice pack to your face decreases your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain and relaxes your body. You instinctually knew that splashing cold water on your face feels good, but now you know why.
Mind Your Gut Health: Eating enough fiber and taking a probiotic help to keep your gut healthy and facilitate the communication between your gut and your brain through the vagus nerve.
Laugh: Laughing boosts your mood and your immune system and stimulates the vagus nerve, too. There’s even a practice called Laughter Yoga. Two healthy activities rolled into one!
Positive Self-Talk: Your mind, of course, is separate from your brain, and while you have no conscious control over your brain function, we’ve been talking about how you CAN exert control over the involuntary parts of your nervous system. Having stressful thoughts elicits stressful reactions from your body; therefore, how you think and talk to yourself isn’t a New-Age, woo-woo concept. It’s physiological and provable! Read our previous article, “Stress and the Modern Mom,” which provides several mindset shifts that will also help you actively create more serenity in your life.
Pre-empt Stress with Vagus Nerve Knowledge
Knowing how to actively affect the natural function of your vagus nerve allows you to use it as a secret weapon for fighting stress. You can even use these techniques to pre-empt the effects of stress. For example, if you’re setting out in your car on the morning of a big meeting with your boss, you may notice you’re gripping the steering wheel a bit too hard. Instead of listening to the doom-and-gloom morning news, turn on the radio and sing along or switch to an episode of your favorite funny podcast and laugh—get those vocal cords vibrating!
You can even teach kids as young as five to understand their bodies better and learn to self-regulate. Teens can especially benefit from these techniques as their lives get more complicated with school activities, relationships and social media overload. A skilled mental health therapist can educate and assist both children and adults. Knowing these simple tricks can give a sense of empowerment in these stressful times. And that is something everyone can use.
Special thanks to Diana Shaw, Ed.S, LMHC for her help with this article. Diana is a neighbor to CIPC and The Salt Room Longwood. Her practice, Chaos Solutions Counseling, LLC, is located in our building. She specializes in integrated wellness (mental, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, and vocational). Diana helps her clients (ages 3 +) have a better understanding of themselves to better work through such challenges as anxiety, depression, and grief. She joins them on their journey as she teaches them tools to add to their toolbox of life. Call 407-708-9012 for appointments. Follow her Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/ChaosSolutionsCounseling/