Five Ways to Activate the Vagus Nerve
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It’s seems obvious to state that there is a current global stress crisis. All around the world, millions, if not billions, of individuals are feeling stressed, anxious and burnt out. Yet, some of us have the unfortunate fortune to have the opportunity to sit and dwell on it. Others are acting out of necessity to survive. Regardless, let’s say in the west. This issue is not something new. However, the past few years have exacerbated the situation. The novel concept of a global pandemic, issues related to constant fear-mongering in the media, poor health due to a virus, and lockdowns have created fragility in our population.
Resilience is the ability to face stress and remain in a state of health and balance. In other words, you can face life’s challenges and know that you will come out on top—a fundamental to why faith provides many with stronger resilience. Physiologically we can define resilience through heart rate variability. A measure often found on the many modern-day fitness wearables. However, if we were to measure HRV globally over the past three years, I would speculate that most have dropped.
Under stress, there is an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity. Resilient individuals can create the ideal shift in parasympathetic activity to bring arousal levels back to a healthy level. They sustain homeostasis in the nervous system. You can imagine the nervous system being like a car; the accelerator increases the arousal (stress) level, whereas the brake slows things down. Both can be engaged, but it’s to the extent of which was has more activity as to whether one will feel vigilant or calm.
Chronic stress such as constant worry around finances, the concern of a potential world war and family issues can impact the nervous system. It creates adaptations so that the accelerator is on full throttle, and the brake is eased. We call this brake vagal tone. And in the long term, the adaptation of reduced vagal tone will lead to burnout, chronic health issues or worse, a heart attack.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It comprises two nerves—the left and right vagus nerves— typically referred to collectively as a single subsystem. The vagus is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system and comprises both sensory and motor fibres. Because of its association with the parasympathetic nervous system, it is often thoughts that the vagus nerve is associated with relaxation and calm. Whilst this is true to a certain extent. The vagus nerve also innervates and switches on activity in the digestive system.
The vagus nerve has roughly 80% affective neurons, meaning that it collects data from inside the body and the sense and delivers that to the brain. It receives information from different points of our body: the eyes, throat, heart, lungs, digestive system and reproductive organs. The data collected from these points in our body help regulate many things such as digestion, muscular tone, arousal states and emotions through a concept known as interoception.
Based on what’s happening in the body and through the senses. The vagus nerve sends signals back to the brain, where our brain interprets the data and creates either emotion or alters one’s mental arousal state. E.g. if the breathing rate, heart rate and muscular tone are high, then the brain will interpret this as a state requiring an elevated level of psychological arousal. A concept is known as neuroception. In such a case, whose nervous system detects an unsafe environment may produce psychological thoughts associated with heightened threat detection- a concept we see in anxiety.
Five Ways to Activate the Vagus Nerve
Therefore we can trick the vagus nerve into believing we are in a given state to manage our stress or energy levels. For example, you feel a little tired in the morning and lack animation. Try some faster hyperventilation breathwork, then move the body quickly. This change will shift arousal and mobilise fuel for energy production. You are heightening your psychological arousal.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling stressed, anxious and burnt out. Then attempting to increase vagus nerve activity by creating a calming internal environment can offer shifts in your psychology to reduce perceived stress or threat in the world.
Over the following sections, I shall discuss five practices that can help to trick your vagus nerve into producing a calm state via increased vagal tone.
Humans are primarily visionary beings. Whilst we have other senses, most people rely on image to navigate their way around the world. Therefore vision and the eyes are crucial aspects of perception and, thus, experience.
From an evolutionary perspective, eye movement is necessary for survival. It allows you to scan the world for food or potential predators. Whether your eyes are moving and checking vs being fixated in one place directly impacts your arousal level. Think for one second; if you’re out and about walking and have a lot of eye movement and can feel safe enough to gaze around, then your nervous system will be calm. On the other hand, if you suddenly need to stare down at a potential threat because looking in a different direction could leave you vulnerable, then your nervous system will produce more stress.
Dr Francine Shapiro discovered the power of eye movements purely by chance during a walk in the park when she noticed that her eyes were moving back and forth. She talked with a friend about something challenging and noticed the disturbance went away. Over time she developed EMDR Therapy as a trauma treatment model that psychologists now use to help people process traumatic life experiences.
Dr Andrew Huberman discusses the research related to this in his podcast. He suggests that lateral eye movements evoke the neurochemistry of courage because, when paired with physical activity, it tends to suppress the amygdala’s role in initiating a fear response while simultaneously signalling the release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter helps increase a felt sense of pleasure and reward.
In his book entitled ‘Accessing The Healing Power of The Vagus Nerve‘, Stanley Rosenberg suggests that eye movement, which is a part of his Basic Exercise, can increase vagal tone and thus create a brake life effect on stress—helping to create a calm and connected state.
One takeaway is to reduce stress, anxiety and burnout; you need to spend more time in a position where your eyes get movement. So one simple practice you can do to boost vagal tone is to scan the horizon whilst on a walk in nature.
Although I believe this to be highly speculative, many therapists, mainly those interested in vagal nerve activation, talk about ear massage. Although the auricular release is also known as an ear release, you can do it anytime, anywhere. It simply looks like you’re playing with your ears. Not surprisingly, this is a standard soothing method for children and adults when they are feeling a little anxious or worried.
The fascinating thing about the auricular release is the external ear is one of the only places in the body where the vagus nerve is sending this peripheral branch. The auricular branch surfaces as the afferent auricular vagus nerve, which means that the information from the periphery goes to the brain. So we stimulate the ear from the skin and signalling back to our nervous system to create this sense of calm.
It’s all good and how and why it works, but it’s much better to know what to do. Given I am no expert in this, you should check out this article by The Movement Paradigm.
Gargling, Chating or Humming
About six years ago, I began to struggle with Insomnia; it was during a period of my life when my anxiety was at an all-time high. It wasn’t until I was 27 that I realised I’ve lived my whole life with underlying tension, which I most likely inherited from my mother. She’s kind and loving but always struggled with being too nice and setting her boundaries. So I had to learn to work on something that came into my personality growing up.
When I couldn’t sleep, I tried everything, eye masks, meditation, calming tea, and slow breathing but nothing seemed to work. Not until I made a consistent routine. One of the things that became an essential part of my wind-down relaxation practice was chanting. Yes, that crazy thing that monks do when they sit and do their Ohms for long periods.
I can’t remember how I came across it. Still, the vibrational sensation that came across me when collectively joining the sound of Ohm’s on a youtube video in my darkened front room with only a candle to light the room made me feel at bliss with the world and helped ease my racing mind so I could sleep.
Interestingly there’s science behind the chanting. Yet another technique that, through experience and practice, ancient cultures have discussed for 1000’s years, yet only now are we understanding using the scientific language.
The vagus nerve connects to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. Doing so can increase heart rate variability as a measure of vagal tone. Therefore, placing one of these practices into your daily routine can help maintain a healthy stress level.
Slow Prolonged Exhale Breathing
Heart rate variability shows the ability of one nervous system to increase and decrease sympathovagal tone and therefore increase and reduce stress. We can use this as a measure of resilience. HRV at rest is an excellent marker of cardiac health, but how does this phenomenon occur?
When you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and flattens, this movement increases the volume in the chest thorax, the pressure falls, and air enters the lungs. The volume in the thorax is greater, and the size of the heart slightly increases with each inhale. The blood pressure in the heart also decreases somewhat. Still, the heart needs to maintain the same blood flow around the body. Therefore sympathetic nervous activity is increasingly raising the heart rate.
On the contrary, in an exhalation, the opposite happens. Blood pressure in the heart increases; therefore, pressure feedback from the sensory aspects of the vagus nerve triggers the body to reduce acceleration and increase the brake. Thus vagal tone is increased during an exhalation. This rhythm creates a concept known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia.
Using this concept, we can alter the breath cycle so that the exhale is longer than the inhale—a gentle aspect of pranayama breathwork from the yogic community. According to the literature, the ideal inhalation/exhalation ratio for increases in HRV is 1:2.
By using the coherent heart breath at a rate of 6 breaths per minute, we can also tap into a more calming effect with breathing making an ideal practice of 3 seconds in, 6 seconds out.
One of the fascinating things about the autonomic nervous system is that it can detect what’s happening at the body’s peripheries and use that information to send it back to the brain. But, more importantly, this helps us interpret our experiences.
A significant contributor to this is our fascial system.
Fascia is the connective glue-like tissue between the muscle, tendons, ligaments and bones. It helps us move, creates different tension levels for strength and can alter its stiffness to create a more stable or loose joint. But a major role of the fascia is to continually send information back to the brain via the nervous system.
The vagus nerve innervates some of the fasciae around the body. Therefore we can utilise tools such as massage or myofascial release to manipulate the nervous system into increases vagal tone and thus create a calming effect on the mind and body.
To do this, you will need some massage balls and tools; gently roll these along the length of a muscle until you find a sore spot known as trigger points. These sensitive areas send sympathetic messages back to the brain and create stress through pain. You can then use the breath and conscious relaxation practices to release the muscle tension. Doing this over the body can increase vagal tone and create positive physical and mental health outcomes.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, in fact, due to how fast society is growing and the ever-evolving world. Unfortunately, it seems that chronic stress will continue to rise. Therefore we are at a crucial time to tap back into and learn how the body can manage tension effectively.
Biohacking has been a fad for years because so many people are willing to jump to a pill or vitamin to bring about longevity and health. However, all of that is unnecessary if only you are to tune into your body’s wisdom. Listen to the warning signs and create practices that help your nervous system sway toward producing more deeply resting states.