Chronic stress, anxiety and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between the sympathetic (‘fight, flight, freeze’) and parasympathetic (‘rest and restore’) functions of your nervous system.
Your vagus nerve is an important part of the parasympathetic (‘rest and restore’) nervous system and it is a branching nerve that starts at the base of the skull and travels throughout the body like a system of roots or cables, connecting most of the major organs between the brain and colon such as the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems.
It is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves and it is in charge of turning off our ‘fight or flight’ reflex. It is described as being responsible for the mind-body connection as it is a mediator between thinking and feeling – think of the saying ‘trust your gut’ as really meaning ‘trust your vagus nerve.’
Breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is the simplest way to increase vagal tone. Nose breathing activates the vagal receptors found in the lower lobes of the lungs that mouth breathing cannot access. Slow, smooth breathing immediately relaxes the body, because it stimulates the vagus nerve, and this activates our relaxation response, reduces our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure.
Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed to 5-7 breaths per minute. Breathing in through your nose, so that you feel your belly expanding and making your exhalation longer and slower than your inhalation is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation.
In order for you to slow your breath to 5-7 breaths per minute, try this breathing practice: To begin take a few slower, deeper breaths and continue to gradually deepen your breathing in a way that feels comfortable for you. Then to begin to slow your breaths to 5-7 breaths per minute, count to 5 on your inhalation, then hold for a moment, and slowly exhale to a count of 10.
We live in a world that over-stimulates and over-activates our sympathetic (‘fight, flight, freeze’) nervous system; therefore we need tools that help us to engage the parasympathetic (‘rest and restore’) nervous system on a daily basis.
If left untreated, chronic stress, anxiety and unresolved trauma can disrupt your physical, mental, and emotional health. An unhealthy vagal tone will compromise the nervous system leading to inflammation, lack of homeostasis, brain fog, and an increase in stress hormones.
A healthy vagal tone is in a state of homeostasis (balance) and is associated with feelings such as: trust, compassion, acceptance, and joy. When we are parasympathetically dominant, our breath is full, slow, and deep. The digestive system works well and the body can focus on repair, including the reduction of inflammation, tissue repair, and hormone production.
Strengthening and toning your vagus nerve can put you in control of your body and mind. When this system is more active, you have a “buffer” for stress that can help you to stay calm and present in challenging situations.
Here are some other practices you can do daily to improve your vagal tone:
- Singing, chanting Om, humming, and gargling ~ The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so singing, chanting Om, humming, and gargling all create vibrations that activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. Singing also produces slow, regular and deep breathing.
- Cold Water ~ Any kind of acute cold exposure including splashing your face or body with cold water or drinking ice cold water will increase vagus nerve activation.
- Gut bacteria~ The vagus nerve plays a major role in the gut-brain axis, and this, in turn, plays a major role in our brain and behaviour. Adding good quality probiotics into your diet improves brain function and can be really helpful, not only to your gut, but also to your vagus nerve.
- Yoga ~ Restorative yoga poses help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby strengthening the vagus nerve and balancing the nervous system in a positive way.
- Meditation, Tai Chi and Relaxation Techniques ~ Breathing deeply and slowly from the belly to tone or stimulate the vagus nerve is common in all of these techniques.
- Acupuncture ~ Stimulating specific acupoints through traditional acupuncture, especially to the ear, stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Craniosacral Therapy~ This gentle type of bodywork can release restrictions in the fascia, muscles, viscera, and organs within the body, so the vagus nerve can move freely and communicate sensory information to the brain.
If you’re in a stressful situation and you consciously slow down your breathing just for one minute, you can put yourself in a calmer state. Increasing your vagal tone can help you to overcome anxiety and depression, and better manage them when they arise.
By stimulating your vagus nerve every day, you send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.