What The Vagus Nerve Is
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It comes from the Latin word, vagus, for “wandering.” That’s because it wanders throughout your body, with wide distribution connecting the brainstem to the body. Only mammals have this nerve. It helps the immune system and inflammation response to disease. It has four main functions: sensory, special sensory, motor and parasympathetic. It has the dorsal and ventral parts to itself. The dorsal is the back and the ventral is in the front. During neuroception, both parts may be activated as you analyze environment cues of safety or danger. Safety cues activates the ventral, and danger cues activate the dorsal. There are three states of being: mobilization, immobilization or social engagement in response to your environment. A healthy vagal nerve leads you to respond mindfully.
The Love Nerve
The vagus nerve is activated when you are feeling compassion and empathy. A person with a strong vagal nerve profile is more altruistic. It is the kid most likely to intervene with the bully or give up recess time to help someone with homework. In a study, participants that were showed images of suffering activated their vagus nerve. When shown images of pride, it diminished. It fosters common humanity in your compassion for different groups of people, however diverse or different. It is called the “love nerve” because when activated, you are loving. It is caretaking in nature.
Gives You Gut Feelings
The vagus nerve also manages fears. According to Medical News Today, “The vagus nerve sends information from the gut to the brain, which is linked to dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear–hence the saying, ‘gut feeling.’ These signals help a person to recover from stressful and scary situations.”
Any time your brain perceives a threat, due to the sympathetic nervous system, it triggers the fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite–it calms you. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated when a danger is over, such as being pulled out of harm’s way from ongoing traffic while crossing the street. You are no longer distressed, you are at rest. However, sometimes, the brain remains in panic mode, as if you are still in danger.
The vagus nerve helps you to remain calm when you are stressed and to know when you are no longer in danger. It helps you to “rest and digest.” This is low tone dorsal activity. The parasympathetic though has high tone dorsal activity when you get into freeze mode. Typically, if you aren’t healthy emotionally, you are either in sympathetic (fight or flight becoming hypervigilant) or parasympathetic (freeze). Parasympathetic has two other states though- the rest and digest and according to the Polyvagal Theory, the ventral vagal branch of the parasympathetic which is social engagement. The ventral vagal allows you to be less guarded.
Restore self-regulating vagal function through grounding and mindfulness as well self biofeedback such as breathwork. Fronteirs in Psychiatry, “the vagal tone is correlated with capacity to regulate stress responses and can be influenced by breathing, its increase through meditation and yoga likely contribute to resilience and the mitigation of mood and anxiety symptoms.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Glenn Doyle puts it this way: “The vagus nerve is deeply plugged into our heart, our guts, and our voice. Whenever we turn inward to check in with our true feelings; to check in with our intuitive wisdom; or to find our true expressiveness, we're lighting up the vagus nerve. Whenever our face reflects what we're really feeling or experiencing, the vagus nerve is at work. Whenever we plug into the rhythms of ourselves or the world around us, we're lighting up the vagus nerve.
When we speak, shout, sing, the vagus nerve is lit up like a Christmas tree— which is one of the reasons why those activities can be so cathartic and emotional for so many of us.”
Here are some ways to stimulate your vagus nerve:
Reset Ventral Vagus Nerve
In Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Neve by Stanley Rosenberg, there are a few exercises you can do to reset your ventral vagus nerve. They include The Basic Exercise, The Half Salamander Exercise and The Full Salamander Exercise:
The Basic Exercise
1. Lie on back
2. Interweave fingers on both hands and place behind head
3. Without turning your head, look to the right
4. Remain here until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
5. Return to the neutral state with head and eyes straight
6. Repeat on the other side
Rosenberg says the reason you move your eyes is there is “direct neurological connection between the eight suboccipital muscles and the muscles that move our eyeballs.”
The Half-Salamander Exercise
1. Eyes looks right without turning head
2. Tilt head to the right towards shoulder
3. Hold for thirty to sixty seconds
4. Then eyes and head straight back to neutral
5. Eyes look left without turning head
6. Tilt head to the left towards shoulder
7. Hold for thirty to sixty seconds
8. Then return to neutral state
A variation is to look in the opposite direction of the head tilt so the head tilts left and eyes look right and vice versa. Both hold their necks thirty to sixty seconds.
Full Salamander Exercise
1. Get on all fours
2. Head is facing down
3. Look left without turning head
4. Tilt head to the left
5. Let your left spine twist with the head tilt to the left
6. Hold for thirty to sixty seconds
7. Bring head and spine to center to straighten out
8. Repeat on right side
Other Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
1) Breathwork- diaphragmatic breathing
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.
Community and belonging help you to feel safe and secure. When you are connected, you are calmer and more positive.
3) Diving Reflex
To stimulate the diving reflex, you need cold exposure. You can splash cold water on your face or put ice cubes in a ziploc bag against it. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body.
4) Humming, Singing or Gargling
Don’t you always feel better when you start to hum or sing? Your worries are swept away by a song. Well, that’s because it’s activating your vagus nerve! Simply sing to feel better or gargle if you prefer.
Gut bacteria improve brain function by activating the vagus nerve.
6) Omega 3 Fatty Acids
You can get these from fish oil, or if you’re a vegan, you can find them in chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seed oil and walnuts.
7) Mindfulness and Meditation
According to a study, Loving-Kindness-Meditation created a healthy vagal tone in participants. Know that mindfulness in general is a way to activate your vagus nerve as well. Being present centers you.
Yoga is a parasympathetic activation exercise that helps with digestion, blood flow and more.
9) ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response)
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 on Youtube.
10) ‘OM’ Chanting
If you want to activate your vagus nerve, a great way to do it is by chanting “OM” over and over again. This is often used in yoga, mantras and different faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Whether you perceive it as a spiritual practice or just a meditation practice, it helps to calm you and create inner peace. Studies have shown that this creates greater relaxation.
11) Positive Self-Talk
A simple mantra stimulates the vagus nerve. This produces positive self-talk even when you are feeling afraid or sad. Act in accordance to your affirmations. Try these; “I am enough”, “I am brave”, “Laughter lightens the load”, “I choose happiness”, “I accept situations I can not cotrol”, “I love my body”.