What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve runs all the way down the body, touching all our major organs and is involved in important daily processes
Therapist Fiona Austin explains polyvagal theory and how to stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce anxiety
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Sometimes understanding our body helps us understand our mind. A bit of science can give us a background to our feelings and to empower us to feel good. So, what is the vagus nerve and how does stimulating it help us optimise our mental health?
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is a wandering cranial nerve that touches every organ in our body, especially our gut. It’s a critical part of our rest, digest and relax system, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
It's the longest nerve in our body, supplying both our organs and our brain with vital information. It controls things like our heart rate, digestion, breathing, swallowing, even our need to pee – but it doesn't stop there. The vagus nerve also affects our mental health.
Stimulating it has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and even PTSD symptoms. Studies show that when the vagus nerve is stimulated we can more easily overcome these mental health symptoms. So even if we feel bad, these feelings can be more short-lived and we can more quickly rebound from them.
Since the vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, when it gets stimulated it increases what is known as vagal tone: slowing our heart rate and our breathing and calming our nervous system down. In 2010 researchers at the Cleveland clinic found a positive correlation between a high vagal tone and positive emotions with overall good health. Meaning that if when the vagus nerve is stimulated we feel better, can more easily overcome stress and are less likely to show symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Interestingly, also found in the same study, mothers pass on their vagal tone to their children. So if a mum struggles with anxiety or depression while pregnant, this can result in low vagal tone which is in turn passed on to her newborn. The same goes for the reverse. If a mum has a high vagal tone she can pass that on also.
Good news, vagal tones are not set in stone. They can be changed, increased and improved. There are many ways that we can trigger our vagus nerve so that we can start feeling better and more calm right now.
Top tips for vagus nerve stimulation
1. Expose yourself to something cold
This could be taking a cold shower or dipping your face into ice water. If you live somewhere really cold just go outside, with a t-shirt and shorts on! By introducing ourselves to the cold we are stimulating our vagus nerve, which calms our nervous system down.
This cold stimulation activates specific neurons throughout our vagus nerve, sending direct messages to our parasympathetic nervous system, the system that helps us relax, regenerate and lower our heart rate. It can also decrease inflammation and reduce or stress to help calm us down. So by putting a cold washcloth on your face or even holding ice on your hands you are able to stop yourself from dissociating or having a panic attack. This works, not because it’s a shock to our system but it's because exposure to cold stimulates the vagus nerve and calms us down internally.
2. Massage your vagus nerve
The key here is to be gentle – harder isn’t necessarily better. Find your trapezius, that muscle above your shoulder and gently massage, then moving to the front of your neck run both your fingers up, going toward your hairline. Going behind your ears. You may want to have some lotion so your hands slide more easily. Take time doing this, going up down your neck really gently. Until you start to feel relief. You can also focus on the skin behind your ears in what is direct vagus self-massage.
3. Use your vocal chords
Sing, gargle or suck on a sweet, chew gum, hum or Om (if you do yoga). Because the vagus nerve runs along the side of your neck and is connected, not only to your vocal chords but also the muscles in the back of your throat, doing these things can act as a simulator for the vagus nerve and increase our vagal tone. Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she let it be that singing can be so incredibly uplifting and calming.
4. Eat probiotics
Probiotics have been shown to support the health of our vagus nerve. Having healthy gut bacteria improves brain function. It positively changes certain receptors which are responsible for most of the messages being sent in our brain and our nervous system, ultimately reducing our stress hormones.
The best way to get probiotics into your diet is using things like yoghurt or fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut or kombucha.
5. Try and sleep on your right side
A considerable part of our vagus nerve runs down the right side of our neck. Research shows that sleeping on that side can actually activate it. So we get all the benefits of it being stimulated by simply sleeping on it.
6. Keep talking
My top tip however is talking. Talking from the heart and being heard genuinely by someone else. Therapy not only helps us understand our feelings, but the actual act of talking stimulates the vagal tone that we’ve been discussing here. We are animals who thrive on connection and this fundamental helps reduce anxiety and stress – mind and body.