You may have heard a lot of talk about the vagus nerve lately. This nerve is a key player in how we respond to stress. If we activate the vagus nerve on a regular basis, we can effectively turn down the stress and face life with a deeper sense of calm and resilience.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is actually named from the Latin word vagus, which means “wandering.” This describes the unique pathways of the nerve. It’s the longest cranial nerve in the body and it travels from the brainstem to the mouth and throat, the lungs, the heart, and throughout the digestive system, including the liver, the stomach, the kidneys, and all the way to the small intestine.
So, what does the vagus nerve do?
Because it reaches so many critical systems in the body, the vagus nerve has a profound effect on our nervous system response as well as essential body functions like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.
It also regulates the inflammation response and even our mental health by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system. When this part of the nervous system is activated, we feel a sense of calm and wellbeing. This is why activating the vagus nerve can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
By learning how to activate the vagus nerve, we allow the nervous system to come into balance even when our lives are stressful. Digestion improves, our liver better regulates insulin and blood sugar levels, and our body returns to a state of calm with a normal heart rate and deeper breathing. Activating the vagus nerve is like telling your body, “It’s okay. You’re safe. You can be calm now.”
5 Easy Ways to Activate the Vagus Nerve
Activating the vagus nerve is very simple to do. It’s something you can do at home – and in some cases anytime and anywhere!
1. Sing (or Laugh) It Out!
There’s a reason you feel better after singing your heart out to your favorite song. Because the nerve has location points around your mouth and throat, singing directly stimulates the vagus nerve. Laughing can have a similar effect, as well as humming, gargling, or Om-chanting such as during meditation. Gargling provides a similar effect.
2. Belly Breathing
Deep breathing is one of the easiest ways you can activate the vagus nerve no matter where you are. The key is belly breathing or breathing from your diaphragm. This is the kind of breathing where you can see your stomach rise and fall with each breath.
Aim for six slow, deep breaths per minute – just count to five as you inhale, and then count to five as you exhale. Do this for 1-2 minutes anytime you feel stressed.
3. Feel More Positive Emotions Such as Awe, Love, Compassion
The vagus nerve is in charge of emotional regulation. Under stressful conditions, our fight-or-flight system engages and suddenly every situation feels like a threat. You know that feeling when you’re just “on edge” and you can’t seem to turn it off – that’s your nervous system in a state of heightened awareness.
It turns out, experiencing awe, love and compassion activate the calming effects of the vagus nerve. These feelings can help turn off the fear system that keeps many of us stuck.
- Set aside time to be outside in nature observing God’s Creation both big and small. Observe patterns and colors at different times of the day and during different seasons. Direct sunlight exposure before 10am is a bonus!
- Spend time with a dear friend or beloved pet. Borrow your neighbor’s pet, if needed.
- Do more random acts of kindness: kind and thoughtful things just to make someone else smile.
- Try a loving-kindness meditation. This has been proven to increase feelings of happiness and compassion!
4. Prayer or Meditation
Contemplative prayer, reciting favorite prayers or psalms, and the practice of meditation can directly activate the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve. Practice slowing or regulating your breathing during prayer or meditation to help regulate the nervous system so you’re less likely to go into fight-or-flight mode over the smallest things.
5. Hot/Cold Shower Therapy
Cold exposure is known to have a strong effect on the vagal system. One easy way to use this method is by adding some contrast hot/cold therapy to your shower. All you have to do is this:
- Turn up the hot water as high as you comfortably can for 2-3 minutes.
- Then turn your shower to the coldest setting you can tolerate for 15-30 seconds.
- Repeat 3-4 times, always ending with a cold session.
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