You feel your heart beating in your chest, your breathing is quick and shallow, you begin to sweat, and your thoughts race quicker and quicker. But what can you do to make it stop? Stress and anxiety is an all-too-familiar feeling for many people, but it doesn’t have to be. Learning how to use the vagus nerve to quickly soothe the body’s natural fight-flight-freeze trauma response will forever revolutionize how you recover from stress and anxiety.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
But first, what is the vagus nerve, and how does it interact with the body? The vagus—or vagal—the nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is the longest nerve in the body. It runs from the brainstem all the way down to the abdomen, earning its name as the “vagrant” or wandering nerve. The vagus nerve is a part of the autonomic nervous system. It affects nearly every part of our body—including the heart, lungs, and digestive system—but as it is also a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, it has a particular effect on the body’s feelings of rest and relaxation. The vagus nerve has a direct relationship with heart rate and breathing, which, in turn, has a major impact on how the body experiences stress.
When we get stressed, our parasympathetic nervous system responds and activates the fight or flight response. Biologically, the fight or flight response is meant to help protect the body from dangerous situations such as primal predators. However, today, this response is often triggered—or even overstimulated—by everyday stressors such as work, lack of sleep, strenuous relationships, and PTSD. These stressors activate and keep the parasympathetic nervous system activated for prolonged periods of time and keep stress hormones, such as cortisol, elevated. If stress levels stay elevated for too long, the negative effects can range from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, to lasting physical consequences, such as high blood pressure and digestive problems.
This is why learning calming vagus nerve exercises are increasingly important. Learning how to stimulate the vagus nerve eases the sympathetic nervous system. It can quickly soothe the fight or flight response, slowing your breathing and heart rate and activating the relaxation response. By using the vagus nerve to ease stress and anxiety symptoms, you can prevent long-term mental and physical ailments and increase the sense of calm in your life.
Vagus Nerve Exercises for Stress and Anxiety
There are several ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and reduce stress and anxiety symptoms. Some of the most common vagus nerve stimulations include:
- Breathing exercises
- Cold stimulation
- Vocal exercises
Deep breathing exercises stimulate the vagus nerve and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, slows your heart rate, and focus the mind. Compound the effects of deep breathing on the vagus nerve by incorporating simple meditation techniques as you breathe to achieve a whole-body and mind experience.
Check out the following video for more information on which breathing techniques target the vagus nerve and how to perform them.
Physically stimulating the vagus nerve through massage is a direct and effective method. By using gentle but carefully applied pressure massages to the ears and back of the neck, you can interrupt and redirect the stressful parasympathetic signals being delivered by the vagus nerve and instead communicate calm and control to your body. Foot massages also have a powerful impact on the vagus nerve. Although it may feel a little awkward at first to kick off your shoes and try a foot massage while you are stressed, the pressure points in the feet stimulate the vagus nerve and serve as a great go-to relaxation technique to keep in your anti-anxiety arsenal.
Cold water or compress stimulation can stop elevated anxiety in its tracks. Have you ever splashed cold water on your face or held a cool water bottle to your cheek when you were feeling stressed? Using cold water—or better yet, a cold compress—on your face and neck has been shown to slow your heart rate and reset your vagus nerve. Follow the video clip below to learn the most impactful cold compress techniques.
Singing, humming, and “om” -ing are all ways you can stimulate the vagus nerve. Studies have shown that these types of dedicated vocal exercises have the ability to stimulate the vagus nerve branches in the head and throat, which have a close relationship to brain function. Watch the video below to learn how to use vocal exercises to stimulate the vagus nerve and relieve stress when you need it most.
The vagus nerve plays a critical part in our body’s ability to feel and process not only the physical sensation and automatic bodily functions—such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion—but also our emotional and mental functions. By understanding how this significant nerve affects the body, you can learn how to stimulate and manipulate it to your advantage. By using exercises such as breathing, massage, cold compress, and vocal exercises, one can easily soothe stress and anxiety in a hurry. By practicing and incorporating these exercises into your daily life, you will become an expert in fighting chronic stress, anxiety, and overwhelm.