Harnessing the power of the vagus nerve to deal with stress

Updated: Sep 6


Man meditating in lotus pose in front of brain
Image credit: vectorjuice (Freepik)

Tips & tricks / by Sarah Nolan


Throughout our bodies, billions of nerves are responsible for coordinating our actions, our feelings and our experiences. But there's one nerve in particular that holds a strong sway over our physical and mental wellbeing. Sarah Nolan tells us more...


A warm hug, a sigh of relief, or a breath of fresh air – what do all of these things have in common?


1: They all feel incredibly relaxing. And 2: All of these actions stimulate the vagus nerve.


If you have never heard about the vagus nerve, don’t worry you’re not alone. Although it’s not widely known, the vagus nerve has a huge impact on bodily functions and, most importantly, on how the body deals with stress.


A tale of two states


During our day, our bodies are always assessing the potential for danger and dangerous situations. When it senses some changes in the environment, either internal or external, the brain can make changes to the body to protect itself from the potential threat.


When the brain receives messages of a threatening situation, it puts the body into a ‘sympathetic state’ so that it can deal with the stress. This is what’s known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. When the brain receives information that there is no more danger, the brain sends messages back to the organs to relax and work normally again, moving into a ‘parasympathetic state’, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ state.


Diagram of the human nervous system
The parasympathetic and sympathetic responses. The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves that originate at the base of the brain. Image credit: macrovector (Freepik)

Taking the scenic route


So, how does our brain send these messages to our organs? Enter, the vagus nerve.


Situated in the brainstem, the vagus nerve is a collection of sensory fibers (which detect bodily changes) and motor fibers (which stimulate an action).


The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, giving it the nickname 'The Wandering Nerve'. Extending from our brain down to our abdomen, the vagus nerve comes into contact with multiple different organs, collecting information on our current bodily state and relaying commands from our brain to make any necessary changes.


Specifically, the vagus nerve stimulates the release of a chemical called acetylcholine which can affect a variety of different bodily functions, including our heart rate, digestion, breathing, and bladder control.


The vagus nerve in the modern age


It’s important for our bodies to be able to adapt to our surroundings and make the changes that are necessary to either take time to relax, or keep us safe from threats. Our body’s ability to do just that is called vagal tone.


Unfortunately, the problem that many of us face today is that we live a large portion of our lives in the ‘fight or flight’ state due to anxiety, being overworked, not getting proper nutrition, and not sleeping enough. In this state, our body doesn’t get the chance to rest and recharge, which in turn can cause a host of problems.


But that doesn't mean that we can't do anything about it. Improving vagal tone through various exercises and practices has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even PTSD.


So, by adding in simple practices of mindfulness to your daily routine, you can actually improve your vagal tone, bringing a balance to your body’s autonomic processes and helping you deal with stress in a better way.


4 ways to improve your vagal tone


1) Breathing techniques


The breath is integral to creating a calmer state in the mind and body. In order to use the breath to stimulate the vagus nerve, and raise our vagal tone, the exhale has to extend longer than the inhale. This is because as we inhale, our heart rate raises slightly, and when we exhale, it slows down. When we exhale for longer than we inhale, it encourages the heart rate slow, creating a sense of calm in the body and mind.


A good pattern for vagal breathing follows the box breathing technique where all parts of the breath are equal. This means that you breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for four, and then hold again for four, before repeating the pattern again.


Diagram of box breathing
The 'box' breathing technique. Every stage is the same length.

Vagal breathing follows a similar pattern, but extends the exhale stage of breathing to a count of six.

Diagram of vagal breathing
Vagal breathing. Note that exhaling is longer than every other stage.

For anyone that practices techniques that promote awareness of the breath, like yoga or meditation, you'll have first-hand experience of how calming breathing techniques can be, and that's because of their effect on the vagus nerve. But that doesn't mean you have to wait until you're in your next yoga class or meditation session to take advantage of this effect. The next time you're feeling stressed, give vagal breathing a go!


2) Gentle massage


The vagus nerve has lots of nerve endings in and around the ear, making this area of our body a particularly effective place for stimulating our vagus nerve. And one of the best ways of doing so is through massage.


Starting at the base of the trapezius muscle (where your neck joins with your shoulders) try making gentle strokes along both sides of your neck, up and down. You can go all the way from the base of the neck to around the back of your neck, and can even continue this movement behind the ear, pulling up and down gently.


Here's a video that shows you some techniques you can do yourself:



3) Cold water


Now this method probably isn't going to be a favourite amongst most people – but hear me out! Taking a cold shower even for 30 seconds at the end of your normal shower, or even just splashing cold water on your face can really help to raise your vagal tone.


It does so by activating so-called cholinergic neurons through our vagus nerve pathways. This activates the vagus nerve to slow our heart rate and decreases inflammation in the body.


4) Humming and singing


Possibly the strangest-sounding suggestion on this list, but (arguably) the easiest, humming or singing is actually an amazing way to raise your vagal tone.


That's because the vagus nerve is located near to the back of the throat, so as we sing or hum, the vibrations stimulate the nerve, resulting in a feeling of calm and comfort.


Try belting out a couple of notes now. Or just a little hum to yourself. Whatever feels the most appropriate option...


Get practicing!


This list is by no means exhaustive. Getting more omega-3s and probiotics into your diet, exercising daily, and even laughing and socialising can help to activate the vagus nerve. And the best thing about all of these methods is that they're pretty easy to incorporate into our daily lives.


If you feel like your ability to deal with stress is waning, or perhaps you are struggling with a stressful situation right now, give the techniques above a try to help ground yourself and remind the body that it’s safe.



References:

1. Corrigendum: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychol Sci 2016;27(6):931.


2. Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci 2018;12:397.