A happy nervous system is one of the latest buzz terms in the pandemic wellness conversation. You might have heard your favorite yoga teacher talk about how breathing calms the nervous system.
Wellness industry leaders encourage the idea that a regulated nervous system helps our relationships, calms the body’s stress response, and helps us show up as the best versions of ourselves.
And while it’s great that we do yoga, diet, exercise, and create wellness routines to help support nervous system regulation, it’s even more important to know the function behind all these wellness trends.
When you understand the functions behind the nervous system, you’re able to custom-create a self-care prescription that works for you.
Why? Because, not only is wellness an ever-changing industry, it’s also an ever-changing “goal” point within our own bodies. Self-care practices that regulate my nervous system might not work the same for you.
What’s more, what works for you today, might not necessarily work tomorrow. But when you understand the functions behind the nervous system, you’re able to custom-create a self-care prescription that works for you.
The answer to the question of “how” is: the vagus nerve.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the key to calm. The Latin word vagus, from which the name stems, means “wandering.”
“Wandering nerve” is a fitting name because the vagus nerve has multiple branches that start at the brainstem and travel down the back body, touching many major organs along the way, including the heart, lungs, diaphragm, stomach, and intestines.
Because of how thorough this nerve’s interaction is with so many systems within the body, it is largely responsible for what we call the mind-body connection.
Consider what happens in your body when you’re stressed out. Your heart might race, palms get sweaty, stomach in knots, breathing is shallow and quick . . . heart, lungs, diaphragm, stomach, intestines.
That’s right! All thanks to the vagus nerve. Essentially, the vagus nerve is responsible for the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic response in the nervous system.
Specifically, stimulating the vagus nerve can move you into this relaxed state. You can think of this nerve as the queen of calm.
However intelligent our nervous system is, it is also flawed. It is still ancient and cannot adapt as quickly as our threats have changed.
The nervous system cannot tell the difference between the stress of an important meeting and the stress of a life-threatening attack. This is why it’s important to learn how to manually tap into the body’s intelligence in order to down-regulate an over-reactive response.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve Can Help Calm Anxiety
Vagal stimulation is associated with emotion regulation. This includes psychological adaptation, emotional reactivity and expression, empathic responses, and attachment.
The overall message bears repeating: vagal stimulation calms the body’s stress response.
Many times, when we’re feeling stressed, we’re given the advice to take some deep breaths. Since the vagus nerve travels through the diaphragm, one way to stimulate it is through the breath.
Deep, belly breaths – specifically exhales – “massage” the vagus nerve, stimulating a calming response.
Contrarily, if you are breathing shallow, chest-breaths, you could exacerbate the stress response even more.
What Is Vagal Tone?
A healthy and happy response via the vagus nerve is called “vagal tone.” Healthy vagal tone is indicated by heart rate variability, which is a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale.
This is important, not only for your own stress response, but because a low vagal tone is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.
Deep, belly breaths – specifically exhales – “massage” the vagus nerve and stimulate a calming response.
Improving vagal tone through diaphragmatic or belly breathing is extremely healing and calming. Best of all, it’s something everyone can do with a little practice and maybe a little modification.
Affect vagal tone with Pranayama for Anxiety: Try These 4 Breathing Exercises the Next Time You Feel Overwhelmed
Stimulate the Vagus Nerve and Affect Vagal Tone in 4 Steps (Here’s How):
1. Sit Comfortably
You don’t want any strain in the body and you also don’t necessarily want to fall asleep. So, find that middle place.
2. Tune In
If it feels okay to close your eyes, you can do so. But if not, you can always just let your eyes relax on a non-moving object in front of you.
Tune in to your natural breathing. Without judgement (“good,” “bad,” etc.), notice how it feels and where it travels. To your shoulders? Torso? Throat?
3. Begin to Lengthen Your Exhale
For some people, this will look like a four-count inhale and a six-count exhale (or 6:8 count). But it’s okay if it’s more of a 2:3. Even a 1:2 is okay!
Don’t create too much worry about what’s “right” and focus, instead, on how the body feels when you lengthen your out breath.
If you start to feel more anxiety or like you aren’t getting enough air, release the practice and start again when you feel ready.
That’s it! When the practice feels complete to you, you can stop. You can do this once or as many times a day as feels good!
The Takeaway on Vagal Tone and Stimulating the Vagus Nerve
Eventually, lengthening your exhales through belly breathing when you feel stressed can become natural.
Helping improve vagal tone through stimulating the vagus nerve is a powerful and surprisingly simple way to ensure that your self-care practice works for you, no matter the current wellness trend.
Let us know how this practice goes for you!
Need more practices for stimulating the vagus nerve? Find Peace Anytime With This Simple Pranayama Exercise
Affect Your Vagal Tone Now!
With Allie Geer
6-minutes Class | All Levels