Vagus Nerve Stimulation: 5 Techniques That Really Work
The ability to move your body from moments of stress and anxiety to feelings of connection and calm can feel like a kind of superpower, especially at times when the world keeps serving up new (and legitimate) reasons to worry. But thanks to your vagus nerve, this superpower is available to all of us — provided we know the right way to tap into it.
Your vagus nerve, as you might already know, is like a lever that can switch you out of “fight or flight” mode and into “rest and digest” mode. It helps unwind physical and emotional stress throughout your body and is involved in everything from your taste and speech to your ability to process trauma and feel connected and safe in your environment and relationships. Yes, it's that important and that amazing.
The downside is that the vagus nerve can malfunction in response to a variety of factors, including (ironically) chronic stress, and can lead to lingering and highly intensified stress reactions.
Learning how to improve your vagus nerve function will empower you to better manage stress and access a sense of deep calm when you need it most. Read on to learn all about the vagus nerve, including 5 evidence-based ways to harness its soothing energy.
The anatomy and function of the vagus nerve
The vagus nerves, also known as the 10th cranial nerves (CN X), are two long and meandering nerves that extend from the right and left side of the brainstem and create an extensive network of neurologic superhighways that connect your brain to several important areas of your body and vital organs in your head, neck, mid back, and abdomen.
Through your vagus nerve, your 'unconscious' brain can talk directly to your body — and your body can talk back, without requiring your attention. Information about your physiologic state and the specific needs of your organs is constantly running through your vagus nerve. This enables your body to make instant adjustments to keep everything working as it should.
The primary job of the vagus nerve is to oversee the function of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for relaxing and reducing bodily functions so you can rest and heal. It's essential in helping regulate many vital internal organ functions in this process, including:
- Inflammation and immune function
- Respiratory rate
- Heart rate
- Vasomotor activity (regulation of blood flow to its specific organs)
In addition to overseeing PNS function, the vagus nerve has an important role in:
- Taste and speech
- Skin and muscle sensations
- Urinary output
- Certain reflex functions such as nausea & vomiting or swallowing, coughing, and sneezing
How the vagus nerve helps you manage stress
Our body’s primary way of dealing with stress and/or danger is by activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also known as the "fight or flight" response. This is what puts your body and mind on alert, and potentially helps you escape from a dangerous situation. After encountering stress, your body’s parasympathetic nervous system should calm your body physically and emotionally, and allow you to get on with your day.
It does this by:
- Lowering and calming your heart and respiratory rate
- Reducing blood pressure
- Increasing digestive processes
- Improving blood flow to the internal organs to enhance their functions
- Decreasing perceived pain
- Improving cognition and memory
According to the Polyvagal Theory, the vagus nerve works with the rest of your nervous system to determine whether you're in danger. It not only assesses smells, voice tones, interactions with other people, and details in your current environment, it also draws on your past experiences to try and pick up on potential threats. For example, if you were once attacked by a dog as a train was passing by, it may log 'train sounds' as a danger signal.
Through what are known as mirror neurons, your vagus nerve can even sense feelings of safety or threat in someone else's nervous system. This ability is known as neuroception and it is an evolutionary advantage seen in mammals whose everyday survival depends on forming relationships, engaging with others, and co-regulating socially.
To get specific, it's the ventral portion of the vagus nerve that works to detect less obvious signs of safety or threat. If the vagus nerve decides that you're safe, then further SNS activity is suppressed. If your vagus nerve decides that you're in danger, it allows your body to go into defense mode.
This mind-blowing ability of the vagus nerve to sift through subtle information helps explain why it may feel calming to hug a loved one but creepy when the hug comes unwelcome from a stranger, or why a certain tone of voice or facial expression can make your hair stand on end.
Vagus nerve stimulation: the key to calm
If you were an animal living among predators (imagine a herd of zebras living side-by-side with lions), the ability to mount an instant defense when you're in danger and then just as suddenly relax and continue with your day when that danger passes would be super helpful. In fact, it'd be the only way to stay sane when danger is literally lurking around every bend.
As a human, it's not so helpful because our 'perceived dangers' can take on many shapes and forms. More often, human stress looks like a dreaded daily interaction with a toxic co-worker, worry over a loved one’s health, or the insecure feeling that you may not be able to pay your bills on time. While these are certainly not life-threatening scenarios, they might as well be lions as far as your nervous system is concerned. These not-so-deadly threats trigger your fight-or-flight response and take a toll on your body both physically and emotionally.
When daily experiences lead to chronic and prolonged stress, it can impact everything from our mental health and sleep to our cardiovascular and sexual function. Chronic stress and anxiety can also make it more difficult for your vagus nerve to manage stress — it’s a vicious cycle.
Learning how to better manage stress and avoid 'over-responding' to threats that can't actually hurt you is vital for your overall health. Thankfully, on top of the vagus nerve being absolutely fascinating, there are ways of stimulating it that encourage parasympathetic activity, which is the ultimate key to more calm.
5 Ways to stimulate your vagus nerve
From your head to your toes, there are evidence-based ways to tap into the power of the vagus nerve. One way vagus nerve stimulation is being used medically is through direct stimulation. With the help of a device, nerve stimulation uses electrical impulses to modulate the activity of the vagus nerve, and has been found effective in treating certain medical conditions. Device-assisted vagus nerve stimulation is FDA-approved to treat certain seizure disorders, depression, and cluster headaches, and is also being studied for the treatment of other conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, IBS, Alzheimer’s, and other mental health disorders.
And, yes, there are also some DIY ways to stimulate your vagus nerve. Physical exercise and grounding are tried-and-true tricks for unwinding stress, but we're excited to introduce you to 5 new activities that are super easy. The goal of these activities is to transition your vagus nerve back into rest-and-digest mode, reset your mind, reduce any symptoms of stress, and increase your resilience.
How do we know that these techniques work? For one, they make you feel more relaxed and engaged instantly. But vagus nerve function can also be measured by Heart rate variability (HRV), which measures how well your heart rate adjusts to what you are doing, and is essentially a measure of your resilience to stress. Although not a perfect measure (HRV can also be affected by medications, age, and certain medical conditions) it's generally true that an increase in HRV translates to improved vagal tone. When stimulating the function of the vagus nerve, the goal is typically to increase your HRV, and decrease your respiratory and heart rate.
1. Sing! Laugh! Hum!
In a nutshell: Vocalize. Part of the long, wandering vagus nerve swings around to the larynx and pharynx, which are sections of your throat and vocal cords — vocalizing will essentially exercise the nerve to increase its activity. Singing, laughing, and humming also require you to slow and control your breath. Plus, if Taylor Swift has taught us anything, it’s that music engages our emotions and is best enjoyed with others — just like the vagus nerve needs.
Various studies have shown that singing, humming, and laughing may benefit the health of your vagus nerve, and improve your heart rate variability. Likely through the same mechanisms, many suggest gargling water to activate and strengthen the vagus nerve, although specific evidence for this is lacking.
2. Yoga and Meditation
Yoga and meditative practices have been shown to have positive effects on HRV and mood. Meditative practices that incorporate “OM” chanting may also further stimulate the vagus nerve, by calming the areas of your brain responsible for emotions, in a similar way that direct stimulation of the vagus nerve does.
Exposing yourself to a chilly blast when feeling on edge and stressed to distraction may be able to lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. This does not mean you need to go out to buy a plunge tank — the risks of full-body cold water immersion may still outweigh the much-debated benefits. This study shows that just 4,16-second rounds of cold exposure (at between 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit), to the sides of the neck (near where the vagus runs along where you check your pulse at the carotid artery) was enough to engage the PNS.
Rooted in the practice of yoga, breathwork is neither new, nor fancy. However, the simple act of intentionally slowing down your breathing cadence has been shown to have incredible psychological and physiological benefits including increased heart rate variability, improved mood and feelings of relaxation, and decreased anxiety. Common breath work strategies include slow diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and the Navy SEAL-approved Box Breathing.
Cyclic or physiologic sighing is another strategy that has been shown to improve mood and nervous system function. This recent study shows that 5 minutes of cyclic sighing — which consists of two sharp inhales to fully fill your lungs, followed by a long and slow exhale — was shown to improve mood and reduce resting respiratory rate, better than 5 minutes of meditation.
5. Foot Reflexology
There’s no argument that massages are relaxing, but foot reflexology, which uses pressure-point massage to particular areas on the feet, may even have more stress-reducing potential. Although high-quality research is lacking, this study shows that foot reflexology reduced blood pressure and enhanced vagus nerve function for up to 60 minutes after the massage.
Symptoms of vagus nerve dysfunction
Like any part of your body, the nervous system is susceptible to becoming injured which can impact its ability to manage stress reactions, and regulate organ function. Vagus nerve function can be disrupted by a number of things including physical injury, viral infection, stress, emotional trauma, or altered mental states. When the vagus nerve function is disrupted it can affect its tone (aka how well your nerve is working). Generally speaking, 'low tone' means the vagus nerve is less active than usual, while 'high tone' means there is more activity than usual.
If your vagus nerve isn't functioning properly, you may experience:
- Gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, change in appetite, or acid reflux)
- Changes in its reflexive functions including nausea and/or vomiting, loss of the gag reflex, or difficulty swallowing
- Vasovagal symptoms such as dizziness or fainting
- Changes in your breath or voice including hoarseness or wheezing
- Changes in your heart rate, breathing rate, or even circulating blood sugar
- Prolonged, excessive, or abnormal reactions to stress
Vagus nerve dysfunction has even been associated with specific medical conditions including vaso-vagal syncope (also known as neurocardiogenic syncope) and gastroparesis. Also, considering the mind-body connection of the vagus nerve, disruption of healthy vagus nerve function is likely to explain why a history of trauma is associated with instances of irritable bowel syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, dysautonomia, and why those with anxiety commonly report gastrointestinal dysfunction.
Getting help for vagus nerve dysfunction
If you're concerned about the function of your vagus nerve, it is best to discuss your symptoms and concerns with your physician first, as symptoms related to vagus nerve dysfunction are similar to those caused by various other medical conditions. It is important to understand what is specifically causing your symptoms, so that you can get proper treatment.
At Origin, we understand how important it is for you to feel able to manage feelings of stress and anxiety, and be calm and present during treatment — you can’t heal without these things. We also understand how intimidating pelvic physical therapy can be, especially when you are in pain, or have worry over discussing your symptoms. Rest assured, our physical therapists are trained in a trauma-sensitive approach to physical therapy care, and understand how integrating your vagus nerve health, and vagus nerve calming exercises like those mentioned above, will encourage your progress and healing.
If you have any questions about our care, schedule an introductory call with us today, or if you’re ready to get started, schedule an appointment using our easy online booking tool. We look forward to seeing you in person, or virtually wherever you are the most comfortable.