Your Body’s Anxiety Defense Mechanism: The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. The Vagus nerve connects your brain to all the organs throughout the body, including the gut-intestines, stomach, liver, kidneys- and the heart and lungs.
The word “vagus” means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs. The vagus nerve helps you to remain calm when you are stressed and to know when you are no longer in danger. It helps you to “rest and digest.” When the vagus is stimulated, you feel calmer, more compassionate, and clearer. Stimulating the vagus benefits your autonomic nervous system and your mental health.
What is most important about the vagus nerve is its tone. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. Healthy vagal tone means emotional regulation, greater connection, and better physical health. Poor vagal tone can create issues with breathing, digestion, body inflammation, heart rate, liver function, cause chronic stress, and impair sleep.
“The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.” — Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland
Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
1. Breathwork- diaphragmatic breathing
Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. As you breathe in, feel your stomach expand, and when you exhale, your stomach should go back down.
2. Diving Reflex
To stimulate the diving reflex, you need cold exposure. You can splash cold water on your face or put ice cubes in a ziploc bag on your face. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body. Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. You can take cold showers or go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing. Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel.
3. Humming, Singing or Gargling
Humming, singing or gargling tones the vagus nerve. Chanting the word “Om” can decrease stress levels.
It’s clear to researchers that healthy gut bacteria improve brain function by activating the vagus nerve.
5. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
You can get these from fish oil, or if you’re a vegan, you can find them in chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seed oil and walnuts. Researchers have discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity. Studies show Omega 3’s reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve.
6. Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is taking time to pay attention to the present moment and what you are doing in it. Meditation teaches us to focus on our breath and listen to our hearts. Studies have shown that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation.
Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that helps with digestion, blood flow and more.
Exercise stimulates the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects. Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health.
Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal activity and vagal tone. The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response
10. Socializing and Laughing
Socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone, and we now know it is likely doing this by stimulating the vagus nerve. Researchers have also discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood.
So, as you can see, there are many things you can do to tone your vagus nerve and improve both your physical and mental health, including improving symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you feel you could benefit from further support and counseling, consider finding a qualified therapist you trust who can help you manage your mental health.
Carol Van Kampen, LMSW
Carol Van Kampen, LMSW is an individual private practice psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma treatment at Marsh Psychology Group. Carol is EMDR trained. Contact her at marshpsychologygroup.com
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