Stimulating This Nerve Could Help Reduce Anxiety — Here’s How to Try It
An estimated 30% of Americans experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. It goes without saying that conditions like social anxiety, a specific phobia, generalized anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder can interfere with your personal relationships, work performance, and other basic aspects of everyday life. And while there are lots of ways to cope with stress and anxiety, experts say stimulating your vagus nerve might be the missing piece to getting a handle on your responses to distressing events.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your entire body and is connected to every organ. While it supports a wide variety of critical functions — including digestion, breathing, and heart rate — it also plays a major role in the parasympathetic nervous system, AKA “rest and digest mode.”
“When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it slows breathing and heart rate, promoting calm and alleviating anxiety,” explains Chris Tompkins, a licensed therapist with Theara. “Frequent stimulation of the vagus nerve can help with emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing.”
When your vagus nerve is in working order, you're able to return to a zen state very quickly after that fight or flight response kicks in. But when certain factors sabotage your vagus nerve's functionality, you may find yourself having a harder time bouncing back from stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.
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Here’s what to know about this ultra-important system — and how to stimulate it for the sake of your mental health.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
You’ve probably heard of fight or flight — the system that gets activated when your body senses a potential threat. A wide range of scenarios can trigger fight or flight, often leaving you with a pounding heart, sweaty palms, shallower breathing, dry mouth, and nausea or butterflies in your stomach.
For instance, fight or flight might set in when you’re gearing up for a public speaking engagement when your partner starts raising their voice during an argument, or when your neighbor’s menacing dog starts barking and running towards you. If the fight or flight response serves as an important alarm system, the parasympathetic nervous system counters it by helping you return to a relaxed state once you’ve dealt with the perceived threat.
“Think of fight or flight as the gas pedal and the vagus nerve as the brake pedal,” says Jon Deam, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and founder of Aveo Wellness. “It slows heart rate, breathing, and internal functions.”
Stefan Chmelik, an integrated healthcare physician, mindfulness coach, and founder of Sensate, calls the vagus nerve “the best tool we have for self-regulation.”
“This self-regulation capability includes physical needs, stamina, and recovery as well as metabolic, emotional, and mental balance, and stress resilience,” he explains.
How to Tell Your Vagus Nerve Needs Stimulating
When your vagus nerve is well conditioned, your body can more quickly and easily return to a calm, relaxed baseline. But what happens when it’s not functioning properly?
Deam says the vagus nerve’s capabilities within the parasympathetic nervous system can become weak when your fight or flight response is consistently overactivated.
“If stress is prolonged, such as in the case of trauma, the vagus nerve may initiate the freeze/collapse system,” explains Dana Harron, a licensed clinical psychologist, founder of Monarch Wellness & Psychotherapy, and author of Loving Someone With an Eating Disorder. “This is a stress response in which the body shuts down to conserve energy.”
According to Hong, other factors that can impact the function of the vagus nerve include:
- Prolonged or chronic stress
- Chronic inflammation
- Certain medical conditions, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- Unhealthy diet and lifestyle
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques to Try
To understand why vagus nerve exercises are helpful, it’s important to first understand what they accomplish.
“Vagal tone refers to the strength of the signal sent from the brain to the body through the vagus nerve,” says Colleen Wenner, a licensed mental health counselor and founder/clinical director of New Heights Counseling & Consulting. “When the vagus nerve is weak, the signal will not reach its destination as efficiently. People who suffer from chronic stress and anxiety tend to have lower vagal tone.”
Think of it like any muscle, says Chmelik. The more you exercise and “tone” it, the stronger it becomes.
Dr. Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery, notes that stimulating the vagus nerve can also decrease activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in fear and anxiety.
- Getting adequate sleep
- Exercising regularly
- Getting massages
- Practicing meditation
“Exercise has been shown to be beneficial for the vagus nerve because it helps increase blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, which can then help reduce stress and promote relaxation,” adds Parmar.
Here are some specific techniques that can help stimulate your vagus nerve:
While plunging into a bathtub full of icy water might not sound appealing, Tompkins says that cold therapy can stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Studies have shown that cold-water immersion actually slows down your heart rate and increases blood flow to your brain, thus helping you to better cope with stress.
Not willing to take a freezing cold shower? Try just placing an ice pack on your face or dunking your face in ice water.
Humming or Singing
Parmar and Tompkins agree that the vibrations produced by singing and humming are excellent for activating the vagus nerve. This is because your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords — the muscles at the back of your throat that produce sound.
Try singing in the shower, humming along to music in the car, or even adding a long, deep “Om” at the end of your meditation practice. Parmar also suggests gargling with warm water for 30 seconds.
“The main aspects of the vagus nerve run through the chest into all the major organs, so creating resonance here will work on the whole body,” says Chmelik.
“Taking deep breaths into the belly can help stimulate the nerve, as can specific breathing techniques,” says Tompkins.
Haley Riddle, a licensed counselor with Mynd Psychiatry, recommends practicing box breathing. The technique is simple but effective: inhale for a count of 4 seconds, hold for a count of 4 seconds, exhale for a count of 4 seconds, and then hold again for another 4 seconds before repeating the cycle at least 6-10 times.
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According to Harron, another strategy to try is ujjayi breathing, a common technique used in yoga. After inhaling through your nose, with your mouth closed, exhale slowly with your throat constricted as if you were trying to fog up a mirror (or impersonate Darth Vader breathing). Try to make your exhales longer than your inhales.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tightening and then relaxing individual muscle groups one at a time. Research has shown that it can help to release feelings of tension, anxiety, and anger.
Here’s how to try PMR, according to Wenner:
- Start laying or sitting down.
- Tense the muscles in your toes for 10 seconds, then let go.
- Repeat this with your calves, thighs, hands, buttocks, abs, chest, arms, shoulders, mouth, and eyebrows.
- “As you release the tension, notice how your muscle feels,” says Wenner.
Research has shown that using soundscapes — recreations of an environment through the use of sound — can be helpful for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and help relieve stress. You can easily utilize soundscapes during meditation by turning on a recording of ocean waves, or just opening your window and listening to the birds chirping outside.
But if you’re looking to take your vagal toning up a notch, Sensate is a small wearable meditation gadget that leverages soundscapes. The device is designed to be used with a corresponding audio app that uses infrasonic waves that resonate through the body and encourage relaxation. Chmelik says you can reap the benefits of Sensate in as little as 10 minutes per day. You can use it as part of your meditation routine, or as needed when you’re struggling with an episode of anxiety — such as before a flight or presentation.
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