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The Vagus Nerve: Your Key to Stress Relief

The vagus nerve is the 10th of the 12 cranial nerves, and the longest. It’s technically a pair of vagus nerves, stretching from the lower part of the brain stem (medulla oblongata) and travelling down both sides of the neck, all the way to the colon. The word “vagus” is Latin for “wanderer”, which describes how the vagus nerve stretches around the body, with nerve branches connecting to the gut, liver, heart and lungs.

Often referred to as an “information superhighway”, the vagus nerve is one way the body and brain communicate. The vagus nerve is both efferent and afferent, which means it sends signals from the body to the brain, and vice versa, from the brain to the body. Eighty per cent of its nerve fibres communicate from the body up to the brain, while only 20 per cent from the brain to the body.

The vagus nerve plays an important role in the body as it’s the main parasympathetic nerve, influencing breathing, digestion, heart rate, mood, immune function and reflex actions. The vagus nerve switches off your sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response, allowing you to move into a regulated calm state, often referred to as your “rest and digest” state.

Regulating your nervous system

Your fight or flight response works best when it’s activated for short periods of time, before moving quickly back to a state of calm. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to allow you to stay safe and rise to challenges, but to then return to a state of calm and healing. Problems arise, however, when you are too often in an activated sympathetic state.

With phones pinging, never-ending to-do lists, family challenges, work deadlines and thousands of unread emails, there’s a lot in life that can create stress and activate your fight or flight response. In fact, many people go about their lives in a constant state of stress and survival. Your body and brain weren’t designed to be in fight or flight long-term, and if you don’t regulate your nervous system activity your health and wellbeing can suffer.
When your sympathetic nervous system is activated, it changes how your body functions. It causes your blood pressure to rise, your heart rate to increase, your immune function to change and your digestion to slow down. I spoke with Lisa Gumieniuk, a health professional and coach who helps clients regulate their nervous system through vagal nerve support. She explained that when under stress the digestive system is severely disrupted, which is why people experience either constipation or diarrhoea when stressed, both of which impact health and nutritional absorption.

These fight or flight changes in your body are designed to keep you safe in the short term, but over time can become inflammatory and weaken your immune system. With a compromised immune system, you can get sick more often and take longer to recover. Inflammation is also a serious health concern, and is linked to the development of heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

The brain is also impacted by chronic stress and exposure to too much of the stress hormone cortisol. Neuroscientist Dr John Arden explains in his book, Rewire Your Brain, “When cortisol production is excessive and prolonged, the hippocampus receptors themselves shut down. The hippocampus then begins to atrophy, and with it your memory capacity.”

This is where the vagus nerve comes in, to apply the “brakes” on the stress response. Gumieniuk explains that “the vagus nerve system acts to counterbalance the fight or flight response in the body, and triggers a relaxation response instead.” In this relaxed parasympathetic state, Gumieniuk explains, “Your body heals, your gut works well, you can digest food and you support the function of your reproductive organs.”

Feeling safe

According to Dr Stephen Porges, who developed Polyvagal Theory, when operating from your parasympathetic nervous system you experience a sense of safety. Feeling safe is an important element of physical and mental wellbeing. Porges explains, “When humans feel safe, their nervous systems support the homeostatic functions of health, growth, and restoration, while they simultaneously become accessible to others without feeling or expressing threat and vulnerability.”

When you’re under stress, pressure or the effects of trauma, you feel the opposite of safe because your nervous system becomes hypersensitive and vigilant to risks and dangers. Deb Dana, a licensed clinical social worker specialising in complex trauma, explains in her book Anchored that “Moving out of ventral safety into the energy of the sympathetic system, we have a sense of impending danger and enter into fight and flight. The world feels like an unsafe place with unsafe people.” Arden explains why this happens, saying, “The amygdala (the fear centre of your brain) becomes more sensitised by an increase in cortisol. Because the amygdala can become hypersensitive, chronic stress can make you more jumpy and anxious.”
Knowing how to regulate your nervous system helps to rewire your brain to feel calmer and safer and to be more open to the world. Dana says, “When we are anchored, we have a sense of being safely held so we can venture out without becoming adrift. We are connected to a state of regulation and have room to explore the world around us.”

Working with your body

To begin to do this, Dana talks about “autonomic listening”, which involves noticing when you have moved into your sympathetic nervous system, so you can bring yourself back to a place of calm. She says, “When we learn to listen, we create the ability to reflect and not simply react. As we learn to partner with our nervous system, we begin to experience wellbeing.”

She says, “The goal is not to stay in a state of regulation, but rather to know where we are, recognise when we are moving out of regulation and being pulled into a survival response, and be able to return to regulation. The ability to flexibly move between states is a sign of wellbeing and resilience.”
You can build your body awareness through mindfulness practices, meditation (including body scans), breathing practices and reflective journaling. These body-based activities can help you better understand and regulate your nervous system. You can work with your body to change how your brain is firing and wiring, changing your psychology through your physiology.

Approaching stress management from a “top down” approach can also be problematic. Trying to “think your way” out of stress and anxiety has its limits. Gumieniuk explains that “Interventions that are all about changing your thoughts focus on how the mind interprets information. This approach takes place in the higher parts of your brain (the frontal lobes). This can be problematic because a ‘logic first’ methodology doesn’t work for everyone. When the brain and body are stressed or overwhelmed the frontal cortex can shut down.”

She suggests instead working with the body to activate the vagus nerve, and in doing so regulate your nervous system. Gumieniuk explains that “This approach goes beyond the ‘thinking mind’. You can access healing via exploring, supporting and resourcing your body through your emotions, your feelings, your nervous system and your limbic brain (the emotional part of your brain). This approach aims at connecting the parts of your body and brain that may have become ‘disconnected’ from your rational thinking mind.”

Gumieniuk cautions, however, that for some people who have experienced trauma, body-based approaches can be difficult, overwhelming and confronting. She suggests they work with a trained professional to find the best approach for them, taking it one small step at a time.

5 ways to activate your vagus nerve

While surgically implanted devices have been used to directly stimulate the vagus nerve to help treat conditions such as epilepsy, treatment-resistant depression and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, there are non-invasive and natural ways you can regulate your own nervous system by activating your vagus nerve.

1 Breathing

Deep, slow belly breathing is one of the easiest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and send a message of calm to your brain. However, the inhale and exhale play different roles in the body. Gumieniuk explains, “Inhales activate the sympathetic nervous system, while exhales activate the parasympathetic nervous system. What we want to try and do with breathing is to have longer exhales than inhales.”

Neurologist Dr Ilene Ruhoy suggests breathing in for two counts, breathing out for four counts, with a one count pause at the top of the inhale and a one count pause at the bottom of the exhale. Another way to create a longer exhale is to take a deep breath in and release your breath as a big sigh. Sighing activates the vagus nerve which is why it feels so good when you feel stressed.

2 Yoga

Yoga incorporates mindfulness, movement and breathing exercises, which stimulates the vagus nerve, improving gut function and regulating your nervous system. Research has shown that yoga can reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is an indicator of good vagal function. With so many styles of yoga, from dynamic hatha and vinyasa yoga to gentler styles of yoga such as yin and restorative, and even vagus nerve yoga, there’s sure to be a style that is a great fit for you.

3 Cold exposure

To help regulate your nervous system, embrace the power of cold. Ruhoy says, “Studies show that acute cold exposure activates the vagus nerve, as well as various neurons on the vagus nerve pathway, causing a shift toward parasympathetic nervous system activity.” Cold exposure slows the heart rate, sending a calming message back to your brain via the vagus nerve. Cold showers, splashing your face with cold water, placing an ice pack on your chest or the back of your neck and going for a walk in cold temperatures are all ways you can incorporate cold exposure into your day. While cold exposure may be good for most people, talk to your physician first to ensure it’s safe for you.

4 Get vocal

Ruhoy says, “Research shows that singing has a biologically soothing effect, which has everything to do with the vagus nerve.” Gumieniuk explains that “The vagus nerve is connected to your throat and controls your vocal cords, so humming, singing, chanting and gargling all activate muscles in your throat that stimulate your vagus nerve.” Gumieniuk suggests the best sounds to chant are “Om” and “Voo”, as they vibrate more strongly in the throat, chest and belly.

5 Ear massage

The vagus nerve connects to your ears, with nerve branches found in the concha and external ear canal. Gumieniuk explains that stimulating certain acupressure points on your ears can activate the vagus nerve and can leave you feeling calmer and more relaxed. Ear massage and acupuncture have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years to help regulate the nervous system. Dr Kathy Au-Yeung, a TCM practitioner, explains, “When you massage your ears you stimulate lots of energy points that run through the ears and then into your body. The simple act of touch alone is very healing. It boosts the immune cells in your body, reduces feelings of stress or anxiety and helps you relax.”


The vagus nerve plays an important role in how well you move from states of stress to states of calm. By intervening in small ways daily, you can regulate your nervous system, making it easier to navigate the challenges and demands of life. By activating your vagus nerve to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, you can protect your body and brain from the negative effects of long-term stress, cortisol and inflammation. By working with your vagus nerve and regulating your nervous system, you can ensure you’re doing all you can to pave the way for a healthy and happy future.

Article Featured in WellBeing 206


Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee is a speaker, writer and business consultant. She is the owner of The Spark Effect and is passionate about sharing neuroscience-based strategies to teach corporate teams and businesses how to better use their brains to reduce overwhelm and stress, while boosting productivity, creative problem solving, wellbeing and communication. Get in touch with Jessica at jessica@thesparkeffect.com.au, on +61 424 358 334 or via thesparkeffect.com.au.

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