As a psychotherapist and a coach, I work with many people who suffer from anxiety and stress. A common question is
“how can I manage my anxiety more effectively without taking medication?”
Most clients are surprised to hear that it’s not as complicated as they expect, and it certainly doesn’t need to cost anything. The answer lies within the body’s own self-regulating system and it’s not that difficult to learn how to start tapping into it.
The vagus nerve is the body’s own natural calming system and it’s used to counteract our fight or flight system. It’s how we regulate our emotions. It’s the longest cranial nerve in the body and takes its name from the Latin word, vagus, for wandering, because it wanders throughout the body, with far-reaching distribution networks connecting the brainstem to the rest of the body.
Why do I need to know this?
The vagus nerve is central to developing a healthy stress response and becoming more resilient. When it’s stimulated, we feel calmer and clearer. It therefore benefits our mental health when we’re able to find ways to do that. Stimulating the vagal nerve also benefits our physical health, because it helps the immune system and inflammation response to disease. Dr Arielle Schwartz, a trauma specialist and clinical psychologist, highlights how the vagus nerve is essential for keeping our mental health and immune systems in-check.
“There is a close connection between chronic stress, immune functioning, and inflammation. Regulation of the vagus nerve also plays a significant role in mental health care allowing you to effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.”
Examples of how the vagus nerve works
Schwartz highlights how, because the vagus nerve is so widely distributed throughout our bodies, it is what’s behind our gut instincts, the knot in our throats, and the sparkle in our smiles. Here are two other examples of how it works:
Fear – The vagus nerve manages our fears by sending information from the gut to the brain, helping us to recover from stressful and frightening situations. Whenever the brain perceives a threat (real or imagined), the sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s fight or flight response. This is automatic. An example of this at work is that you might find yourself freezing in a difficult or intimidating situation, unable to respond or make a decision in the moment. This is a natural brain response. The parasympathetic nervous system, which is controlled by the vagus nerve, does the exact opposite–it calms us down, and is activated once the danger has passed. For instance, once we’ve left that difficult meeting, our bodies normally start to calm down.
Although, sometimes, the brain remains in fight or flight mode, as if the danger were still there, and this is more likely for people who have experienced traumatic life situations in the past.
Compassion – The vagus nerve is also activated when we feel compassion and empathy. Dr Stephen Porges, who has spearheaded the research on vagal nerve theory, calls it the ‘love nerve’ because when it is activated, we feel more loving, which also means we can then act more compassionately towards others, even in situations when we’re stressed and fearful. As parents, for instance, it can help us to step back from tense situations and react from a calmer, more loving and understanding place.
The vagus nerve therefore helps us to remain calm when we are stressed and to know when we are no longer in danger. It helps our body to switch into rest and relax mode.
How does knowing all this help me?
Because regularly stimulating our vagus nerve helps us to be more resilient and manage stress and anxiety, researchers have looked at ways we can do this in our normal day to day lives.
We can’t directly stimulate our vagus nerve – unless we have a surgically implanted device. But we can strengthen it in pretty simple indirect ways. Your vagus nerve passes through your belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles, and so exercises that stimulate these, indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve.
Here are some simple ways to indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve:
There’s a reason we’re so often told to take a deep breath! The easiest and most obvious thing to practice is belly breathing, and it’s one that’s often easily discounted by clients – possibly because it seems too simple to be true!
Try this – Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. As you breathe in, feel your stomach expand, and when you exhale, your stomach should go back down. This is also known as “belly breathing.” This lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. When you are anxious, taking deep breaths through your chest can be painful, so be sure to focus on breathing through your belly.
2) Social and Loving Connection
Community, connection and belonging stimulate feelings of compassion and empathy. Therefore, when we are connected, we are generally calmer and more positive. Being a member of a club, volunteering, being active in our community, having friends, and getting regular physical contact, such as hugging and hand holding, or stroking a pet, all help us to feel calm more regularly. Try to stay actively social, even if, and particularly when, you feel anxious or low.
3) The Diving Reflex
According to Dr. Arielle Schwartz, “The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body.” To stimulate the diving reflex, you need cold exposure, like cold water swimming, or simply splashing cold water on your face or taking cold showers also works.
4) Humming, Singing or Gargling – no instructions needed!
5) Mindfulness and Meditation
Studies have shown that Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness-Meditation can help to create a healthy vagal tone in participants. Tara Brach is well known for this kind of work and you can find an example of her work here
Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that helps with digestion, blood flow and more. There are lots of free yoga videos on Youtube. I particularly like Yoga with Adriene
7) ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) or Tapping
ASMR sends “tingles” from your scalp down your spine and helps calm your nervous system with the use of triggers or tools. This entails whispering, scratching, tapping and other noises that pull you into a trance. There are many videos on Youtube.
If you want to learn more about how to stimulate your vagus nerve, there are many books now available online. Here are a few:
Conclusion There are many simple and free things you can do to indirectly activate your vagus nerve, and many benefits to doing so, including managing headaches, chronic body pain and feelings of anxiety and stress. One of the most common obstacles clients come up against is themselves – either they find it difficult to be consistent, because it takes practice to make it a routine, or they doubt the efficacy of the techniques, because of their simplicity!
I encourage you to try something today, and make an intention to yourself to keep it up regularly.
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