We all know that chronic stress is bad for the body and can take a serious toll on mental health. But the good news?
We have a secret superpower that can topple stress in moments: the response of the vagus nerve.
This amazing, “wandering” cranial nerve lends not only to a calmer disposition but also increased immune response, better digestion, decreased inflammation, and resilience in the face of stress and anxiety.
When life gets stressful, our body responds using the nervous system. You’ve probably heard about your “fight, flight, or freeze” response that corresponds to your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). That’s the one that elevates your heart rate, dilates your pupils, quickens your breath, and sends blood rushing to your muscles when your body senses danger.
Then you have your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which is your “rest and digest” mode. This response helps your body return to calm by slowing your heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and generally keeping the body working as it should.¹
The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system and is responsible for a lot of our autonomic (unconscious/uncontrolled) bodily responses, from gut health, to mood, to inflammation, to immune response, and more.²
And while we can’t control these functions, we can tap into the vagus nerve and harness some of its amazing health benefits in ways that are, well, magical.
Finding ways to stimulate your vagus nerve is like hacking your own parasympathetic nervous system. It can help you “trick” your body into staying calm under pressure, and make relaxation your default state.
Try these easy tips to increase your vagal tone, so that you can harness the life-changing magic of the vagus nerve:
- Exercise Your Vocal Cords. The vibration of our vocal cords help stimulate the vagus nerve, and can be accessed in a number of ways. You can belt it out in the shower to your favorite song, gargle water, or listen to the sort of podcast that makes you belly laugh - all actions that help increase vagal tone.
Another way to access vocal vibration is through chanting, specifically that resonant “om” associated with yoga. Start by creating a loud “Ah” sound, followed by a long “O,” sealing the lips at the end to create the “Mm” sound that should reverberate around your ears.
- Breathe Deep. Slow and deep breathing signals to our body that everything is okay.
Using deep belly breathing helps stimulate the vagus nerve and shifts your focus inward leading to greater feelings of calm. Try slowing your breath down to a rate of six breaths per minute, making your exhales slightly longer than your inhales. Another technique is the 4-7-8 method, which has you inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of seven, then release all your air with a whoosh to the count of eight.
- Connect with the Positive. Focusing on the good in life can not only change your outlook, it can change the way your body responds to stress by activating the vagus nerve. Spending time with loved ones, petting cute dogs, taking a slow walk in nature - all of these activities tell your stress-response to back down.
So-called contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and even gratitude journaling have also been found to calm the nervous system, in part by engaging the vagus nerve.³
There are other, less objectively fun practices too, like cold plunges/showers that also help stimulate the vagus nerve, as well as methods like reflexology, acupuncture, and craniosacral therapy that can be accessed with the help of a professional.
Start with whichever practices interest you most and start reaping the rewards of greater resiliency.