- Your vagus nerve helps regulate digestion, breathing, heart rate, and your stress response.
- Stimulating this nerve could also help you regain a sense of calm in stressful circumstances.
- You can stimulate your vagus nerve with SKY yoga, breathing techniques, exercise, or cold water.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It actually consists of two nerves: one on the right side of your body and one on the left.
Both extend from your brain all the way down to your gut, passing through your heart, lungs, and intestinal organs along the way.
This nerve controls many crucial functions:
- Heart rate
- Immune response
- Mood regulation
- Reflexes like sneezing, swallowing, and coughing
Its most famous responsibility, however, is the pivotal role it plays in getting you back to a state of calm after a stressful event, says Deborah Jacobs, a licensed mental health counselor and board-certified art therapist.
But the vagus nerve can sometimes become damaged or dysfunctional, usually due to age or chronic stress, says Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Evolve Counseling. As a result, stressful events may take more of a toll on you, and you may experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Mounting research has suggested that stimulating the vagus nerve through various exercises can have a therapeutic effect by helping reduce stress and improve overall well-being.
Here's what to know about the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation — and how to do it at home.
Exercises to try
It's worth learning ways to calm your body's stress response because getting frequently stuck in fight or flight mode can take a massive toll on your body, leaving you feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally depleted.
To activate the vagus nerve, experts suggest any of the following activities.
1. SKY Yoga
- A 2013 review found that SKY yoga can have beneficial effects on heart rate, improve attention, and increase relaxation.
- A small 2016 study found that this technique can decrease blood pressure.
- A 2017 study found that SKY yoga may decrease depression and anxiety in people who don't respond to antidepressants.
- A 2021 study found that this practice can improve sleep quality.
A typical SKY yoga session lasts for 45 minutes and consists of three breathing techniques performed at different paces. The final technique is known as "om" chanting.
To try it, sit in a comfortable upright position with your eyes gently closed, ideally on a mat or the floor with your legs crossed. Inhale, and then exhale on an "om" sound. According to Jacobs, this creates vibrations in the center of your body that can stimulate the vagus nerve.
You can also achieve a similar effect with a "voo" sound. Jacobs recommends trying to focus the vibration right behind your belly button, and pausing afterward to notice what sensations, thoughts, feelings, or images come up. Feel free to repeat this three times.
2. Box Breathing
When your fight or flight response kicks in, your body will respond by quickening your heart rate and breathing, Fedrick says. The idea behind box breathing is to take longer, deeper, and more intentional breaths, which signals your brain that you're safe.
In fact, a small 2021 study found that just one 5-minute session of deep, slow breathing with an equal inhalation and exhalation helped promote a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity, ultimately reducing anxiety.
To achieve this, Fedrick suggests trying box breathing. Here's how it works:
- Start by gently exhaling all the air in your lungs.
- Slowly breathe in as you count to four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Slowly exhale for another count of four.
- Hold your breath again for a count of four, before starting the cycle all over again with an inhalation as you count to four.
- Repeat three to five times.
3. Cold-water immersion
Exposing yourself to cold water or compresses can help stimulate the vagus nerve because the shock of the cold water triggers the sympathetic nervous system, Fedrick says.
A small 2018 study found that applying cold stimulation may slow your heart rate and direct blood flow to your brain, which may, in turn, help ease stress. The effect was most significant for cold stimulation in the neck area.
- Applying a cold compress to the front or sides of your neck, or the center of your upper chest
- Dunking your face in cold water
- Taking a cold shower, or switching to cold water for the last 2-5 minutes of your shower
"This can have a noticeable calming effect for people who are feeling acutely anxious, upset, or overwhelmed," Adams says.
Exercise, especially activities that get your heart rate up, offers a great way to tone your vagus nerve.
A small 2016 study found that participants who performed one cycling session experienced increased vagus nerve activity.
Other ideas to try include:
Cardio training is one of the best methods for VNS because it requires you to work to control your breathing, according to Fedrick.
"It sends your body into a highly activated state, which then triggers the vagus nerve in order to return to a calmer state," Fedrick says.
A few tips to keep in mind:
- Always listen to your body's limits.
- Make it a point to incorporate breathwork and cooldowns into your workouts.
- Be sure to take regular rest days.
5. Three-part breathing
A 2019 review found that regulating breath through diaphragmatic breathing exercises can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. One popular diaphragmatic breathing technique is known as the three-part breath.
Here's how to do it, according to Jacobs:
- While sitting tall or lying flat on your back, slowly start breathing in through your nose, allowing your belly to expand.
- As you continue inhaling, allow the breath to move into your rib cage.
- With the last stretch of your inhale, invite the breath into your upper chest.
- Pause at the top, then slowly exhale — first from the chest, then from the rib cage, and finally from the belly.
- Pause again before repeating this exercise 2-3 times.
Benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve
A 2013 study of healthy volunteers found that "vagal tone," or the activity of the vagus nerve, may decrease with aging. But vagus nerve function can also get thrown out of whack due to life experiences that cause you to get stuck in your habitual responses to stress, Jacobs says.
They have, however, found that vagus nerve stimulation appears to have a number of potential benefits, including:
A 2018 review suggests the vagus nerve plays a part in sensing and suppressing inflammation. As a result, strong vagal activity is associated with better management of inflammation in the body, and a reduced risk of inflammatory diseases.
Reducing epileptic seizures
One of the most well-known benefits of vagus nerve stimulation, Fedrick says, is its ability to help reduce epileptic seizures.
In fact, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved electronic vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) devices to manage epileptic seizures as well as treatment-resistant depression. These devices are implanted in the chest by a healthcare professional and send painless electrical pulses through the vagus nerve.
A 2019 review found that about half of the people who used one of these devices for two years experienced at least a 50% reduction in seizure frequency.
Better mood regulation and mental health
Because a strong vagus nerve is associated with reduced inflammation, stimulating it can reduce stress hormone levels and boost mood-regulating serotonin, says Britt Lindon, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Spruce Mind.
A 2018 review found that after one year of treatment, 57% of patients with treatment-resistant
responded positively to using VNS devices, and 37% experienced remission from depression.
Improved interactions and relationships
According to Jacobs, toning the vagus nerve can help you to shift away from knee-jerk emotional responses and towards those that are less taxing and more beneficial to your internal and external life.
"Building vagal tone may help you recover faster from stress and engage with others in a way that feels more like your authentic self," Jacobs says.
A strong vagus nerve may promote calm and relaxation, Fedrick says, which can help you feel more present and compassionate — a state of mind that can absolutely benefit your relationships.
While there's less scientific evidence to support these benefits, Fedrick and Jacobs say vagus nerve stimulation might also help promote:
The vagus nerve plays a critical role in the autonomic nervous system, especially in switching from fight or flight mode to rest and digest mode.
Since this nerve also plays a part in other essential physical and mental health functions, stimulating it through a variety of exercises could help improve overall well-being.
Vagus nerve exercises may not work for everyone, though. If these techniques don't seem to help ease your stress or anxiety — or make you feel worse — experts recommend working with a therapist who can suggest other personalized strategies for stress relief.