Anxiety can be a real doozy; it's impossibly complicated, deeply personal, and really, really hard to predict. There are times when we think our anxiety is behind us—that we are finally one step ahead—but then something shifts and we are on our heels again, fighting to get back to a place of peace and calm. We are all students of our anxiety and that's why understanding exactly how our nervous system works—and what we can do to calm it—can be incredibly empowering.
But what does calming your nervous system really mean? Many people would describe it as slowing the heart rate, deepening the breath, and relaxing different muscles—but what actually connects these sensations to the brain? Well, allow us to introduce you to the vagus nerve, the part of the body that seems to explain how our minds control our bodies, how our bodies influence our minds and might give us the tools we need to calm them both.
What is the vagus nerve and why should I care?
The vagus nerve runs from the base of the brain through the neck and then branches out in the chest stretching all the way down to the abdomen. The word "vagus" actually means "wandering" in Latin—and that's exactly what the vagus nerve does, it wanders down the body, touching the heart and almost all major organs on its way. This nerve has long been thought of as a "remarkable internal sensory system" as it works to regulate breathing, heart rate, muscles, digestion, circulation, and even the vocal cords. Are you interested yet?
If you haven't heard of the vagus nerve, you're not alone. And it might be because, although scientists know it has many functions, they aren't sure exactly how this nerve actually works. What we do know is that it's a major regulator of the peripheral nervous system, which is also known as the "rest and digest" response because of its ability to slow our pulse and lower our blood pressure. The vagus nerve is also a central player in the gut-brain axis, which has become a pretty big deal in the wellness world.
How is the vagus nerve influencing my health?
In 1921, a German physiologist first discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused the heart rate to slow down by triggering the release of a substance he called Vagusstoff (vagus substance). It was later discovered that this substance was actually acetylcholine—an important neurotransmitter in our nervous system. Since then, researchers have discovered a lot more about the vagus nerve and the role it plays in quite a few different diseases and important systems in the body. For example, electrical stimulation of this nerve has been shown to reduce the rate of epileptic seizures and help with depressive symptoms. Vagal tone—or how strong your vagus nerve is—can be connected to inflammation, immune system regulation, metabolism, and emotional regulation, which we can all agree are pretty important.
So what does the vagus nerve mean for mental health? Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional and attentional regulation, inflammation, depression, and is even used as a measurement for a person's sensitivity to stress. Meanwhile, a healthy vagal tone is associated with the opposite: positive emotions and psychological balance. Some studies have even shown that increasing vagal tone could be helpful in treating addiction and certain cravings. Knowing this, it might be time—in honor of Mental Health Month—for all of us to study up on this very important part of the body.
Can I strengthen my vagus nerve on my own?
Wondering if you can strengthen your vagal tone for better health? You're in luck! Many psychologists, neuroscientists, and integrative health experts say we can tap into the power of the vagus nerve to improve our mental health. Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today wrote that "Vagusstoff (acetylcholine) is like a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths." In other words, the vagus nerve has everything to do with breathing—no wonder connecting with the breath is a founding principle in both yoga and meditation. But besides breathing, there are a host of different ways to give your vagus nerve a much-needed workout. Here are five that will help you fight anxiety and stress on a neurobiological level.
1. Singing and music.
Research shows that singing has a biologically soothing effect, which has everything to do with the vagus nerve. This can be anything from a slow mantra to chanting to belting out your favorite '90s song.
In studies testing the effects of vagus nerve stimulation on children with epilepsy, one of the side effects is uncontrollable laughter. And while it's not a desired side effect in a clinical setting, this does show that laughter is associated with an increase in vagal stimulation. So laugh and laugh often; there are so many proven benefits!
3. Intermittent fasting.
Biofeedback, especially heart rate variability biofeedback, is an amazing type of technology that works by displaying a visual representation of what's happening inside the body. This way, a person can better understand the physiological effects of deep breathing or relaxation techniques; the vagus nerve plays a major role in breathing regulation and heart rate variability, so this can be a fun way to exercise it.
5. Cold exposure.
Studies show that cold exposure causes a shift toward parasympathetic nervous system activity, which as we know is modulated by the vagus nerve. So if you've never explored the benefits of hot to cold showering, your vagus nerve could be a good reason to start.
We already know that the vagus nerve plays a major role in the gut-brain axis, but thanks to science, we now know that gut microorganisms can actually activate the vagus nerve. As you can imagine, this plays a major role in our brain and behavior—in case you needed another reason to invest in an effective probiotic.