Have you heard about the Vagus Nerve?
It’s the most important nerve you perhaps didn’t know you had.
Why is it so important?
Because, the Vagus Nerve (VN) is intimately tied in with multiple organs and systems of the body, and is extremely critical to our overall health.
The word vagus means “wanderer”. The VN got its name because it’s a long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibres that ‘wanders’ all over the body linking the brain, gut (intestines, stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, reproductive organs (female), neck (pharynx, larynx, and oesophagus), ears, and tongue.
The management and processing of emotions happens via the VN between the heart, brain and gut, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states.
The Vagus Nerve’s role in activating the relaxation response
Of particular interest to me, a stress management coach, is the VN’s key role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), to initiate the body’s relaxation response.
The PNS works in partnership with your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which activates the stress response. After experiencing a stress inducing event, it's your PNS that moves into action, to calm you down and restore your body to business as usual. The longer the stress response is switched off, the more time our body has to rest and recover. The longer we are in relaxation mode the more our stress level will reduce.
An important thing to know from a stress management perspective is that the PNS and SNS can’t both be on at the same time.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
We can choose to stimulate the VN whenever we want to, in order to temporarily switch off the stress response and activate the relaxation response. This ability can be particularly useful when we are faced with high pressure moments where we need to perform at our best such as an interview, public speaking, an exam, a match winning put on the 18th green etc.
5 Simple Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
There are many simple ways to stimulate the VN, and here are five of my favourites. They can be performed easily, effortlessly and whenever you need to quell panic or lower your stress level.
Breathe Deeply and Slowly
The easiest way to stimulate the VN is slow, diaphragmatic (belly) breathing where you make the out breath slightly longer than the in breath. This is the first stress management technique (7/11 breathing) I teach all my stress and anxiety clients. Check out my post on 7/11 breathing here.
Cold water exposure
- Dip your face into a basin of very cold water for 30 seconds
- Splash your face with icy water
- Take a cold shower
Any kind of acute cold water exposure instigates what's known as the 'dive reflex'. Triggering the dive reflex activates the PNS immediately, so you feel calmer and less stressed in a matter of seconds.
Splashing your face with icy water, or pressing your face on to an ice pack, can have the same effect for some people, and it works better if you also lean forward and hold your breath for 30 seconds.
A word of caution is that this procedure should not be attempted by anyone with a slow heart rate or low blood pressure, as it decreases your heart rate.
Sing, hum, chant and gargle
The VN is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. You contract these muscles when you sing, hum, chant or gargle, activating the VN.
- Gargling-gargle with water several times a day. The VN activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. Gargling contracts these muscles, which activates the VN and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract. Drink several large glasses of water per day and gargle each sip until you finish the glass of water. You should gargle long enough to make it a bit challenging.
- Sing loudly. Singing at the top of your lungs (like you mean it) makes you work the muscles at the back of your throat.
Laughter stimulates diaphragmatic breathing and in turn stimulates the VN. Check out my post on the health benefits of laughing here.
The PNS is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state, the body likes to be in a relaxed state when it’s time to eat. The simple act of chewing activates: the stomach to release acid, the liver to produce bile; the pancreas to release digestive enzyme; gut motility; all of which are mediated by the VN. So when we chew gum the body is tricked into thinking we’re eating and the VN is stimulated.
Give one or more of these methods a go. They will not only make you feel better, they will allow you to experience the world in a more relaxed, calm and enjoyable state.
Happy vagus nerve stimulating!
If anxiety or stress are causing ongoing problems in your life, give me a call me on 021 056 8389 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your first session.
REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."
Here's to a stimulating weekend.
Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.