Today I’m going to talk about ten ways to stimulate your tenth cranial nerve, commonly known as your Vagus nerve, in order to promote ease, relief, and healing. If you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, another digestive issue or physiological problem, or are gridlocked with stress or anxiety, then you should care about your vagus nerve.
As a licensed psychologist specializing in IBS and other brain-gut disorders like functional dyspepsia, abdominal migraines, cyclic vomiting, and more, my aim is to help you heal and recover. I’d like to offer you some insight on the vagus nerve and how to improve your vagal tone.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The body’s tenth cranial nerve (cranial meaning that it starts in the brain) is also called the vagus, or “wandering,” nerve because it winds its way throughout the thoracic and abdominal cavity. Your vagus nerve connects your brain directly with your gut. What’s less known about the vagus nerve is that it also connects your brain to a whole bunch of vital organs like the lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, colon, and others in your abdominal and thoracic cavity. This means that your nervous system is directly linked to your digestive, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, immune, and renal organs.
There is a lot of communication happening (all the time!) between your brain and all these different organs.
Your vagus nerve is central to your parasympathetic nervous system. One of the functions of your parasympathetic nervous systems is “rest and digest.” In order to start healing and finding relief from your digestive symptoms, you definitely want to be stimulating the “rest and digest” function in your body. Stimulating the vagus nerve in the ten ways I describe here is going to help you to do just that.
The Power of Pleasant Sensations
Before we get to the list, though, a quick note on the types of activities I’ll be listing here. For many people, these activities for improving vagal tone are pleasant. In general, I’ve been writing in my latest blogs (and talking in my latest YouTube videos) about feeling good in order to promote healing. Believe it or not, pleasant states – feeling pleasant emotions and experiencing pleasant sensations – are essential to healing from IBS.
Stimulating the vagus nerve in these ten ways won’t prevent your body from generating all of the symptoms you’d like to put an end to, but it will do several things that promote healing. First, it will give you a break from your symptoms and suffering, which is especially important right now given that there is so much suffering due to Coronavirus. Second, stimulating the vagus nerve repeatedly will teach your body how to get into a more parasympathetic state, even if it can’t always sustain it. The more practice your body gets at entering into a parasympathetic state, the more you are laying the groundwork for healing to happen. Finally, stimulating the vagus nerve will lead to feeling better, hopefully even feeling good, because stimulating the vagus nerve tends to go hand-in-hand with pleasure.
As someone who suffers from IBS, you may experience difficulty feeling pleasure because your body has been locked into feeling something other than that. Stimulating the vagus nerve is intended to unlock those neural pathways in the body that help you to find ease and flow. Don’t worry if you don’t feel pleasure right away when you attempt to stimulate the vagus nerve. You might need to give your body time to connect again with pleasure. It may be enough to teach yourself how to focus on things that bring about a lessening of unpleasant sensations or even just a sense of neutrality, neither pain nor pleasure.
The key to stimulating the vagus nerve and improving vagal tone is focusing your attention on what you are doing when you do these ten things, noticing and keeping your attention on as many of the pleasant feelings, sensations, and vibrations as you can.
So, ready to welcome some pleasure into your life? Let’s get to it.
Ten Ways to Improve Vagal Tone
1. Take Time to Get Comfortable.
When you sit down, take as much time as you need to find comfort. Prop pillows behind you, grab a favorite blanket, do whatever you need to do to find a position that feels good to your body. Don’t hesitate to take extra time to do that. If you’re someone who jumps right into conversation, first give yourself a moment to really get into a comfortable posture. Sure, you can change that posture, but keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re truly at ease and not having to put forth too much effort to maintain that posture.
2. Soften the Jaw and Pelvis.
Once you get into a comfortable seated position, a good habit is to work on softening your jaw and your pelvis. This might sound strange, but the jaw and the pelvis tend to work together. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class and done a hip-opener (such as pigeon pose), your yoga teacher might remind you to soften your face and your jaw for this reason.
See what you can do without forcing or pushing yourself to widen your hips. If you’re a woman, wearing skirts and dresses actually impedes your ability to widen your hips. So, experiment with wearing pants and shorts and see how that feels. Remind yourself that it’s okay to sit with your legs a little more spread out because it helps your hips to widen.
Not sure how to soften your pelvis and your jaw? Trying sitting upright with both feet on the floor. Squeeze your Kegel muscle (men, you, too, can do this by squeezing like you are stopping yourself from urinating.) Now release. As you release, see if you can allow your knees to fall outward or imagine that they are. Feel your hips widen. Breathe. As you do this, see if you can allow your tongue to soften down towards the bottom of your mouth. Notice the subtle shifts that occur as you do this. Breathe and enjoy the difference.
3. Breathe Consciously Into Your Belly.
Without forcing or pushing, breathe into your belly as often as possible. If you’re not used to breathing into your belly, take a few moments each day to practice. Start by paying attention to your breath. Don’t push or force yourself to breathe deeply or differently. Breathe normally, whatever that is for you, for some moments, maybe minutes. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. If you notice that your belly rises and falls as you breathe, then start to practice belly breathing. Feel the belly rise as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out. Again, do this for several moments, minutes if possible. When your mind wanders, compassionately bring it back to your breath.
Breathing into your belly may sound scary to you, and fear of doing anything that might worsen your IBS symptoms is a very real fear. Work to unwind the fear that is keeping your belly from softening. Reassure yourself that you are not going to trigger IBS symptoms just by breathing into your belly, and that expanding and contracting your belly as you take in air is actually beneficial to your body. The fear itself is far more likely to activate IBS symptoms.
4. Connect with Friends and Family
Do things with your loved ones that you enjoy, even if you can’t do them in person. Connect, instead, via Zoom or phone. Be creative in finding enjoyable activities you can do together. Play with your children or other people’s children. Play fun games with adult company. (Games aren’t just for kids!) Get silly and listen to or watch programs that make you laugh and smile. Watching or listening to comedy right now would be very helpful. Have fun and try to enjoy your time, especially in the company of others, as much as possible.
5. Practice Meditation.
There are many different forms of meditation. I like to recommend Insight or Awareness meditation because I think the benefits are more conducive to the type of healing that I try to help people discover. There are many different forms of Insight/Awareness meditation. My personal preference is Vipassana or mindfulness meditation. But in this time of Coronavirus and quarantine, you should do what feels good to you. You might try practices that cultivate compassion and gratitude.
If you’re new to meditation, take a class. Or, simply work your way over time, even if it takes many months, from guided short meditations to twenty or thirty minutes of silent meditation (no music or guidance). I recommend starting your meditation with a few minutes of belly breathing, followed by a minute or two of humming or chanting in low tones, and then a silent meditation. What a great way to start your day!
6. Feel Your Emotions as They Arise.
Try to feel your emotions as much as possible, especially the pleasant ones. Give sufficient time and space to feeling the unpleasant ones, too.
Remember that feeling your emotions begins with awareness of your emotions. Try to recognize feelings as they come up and honor those feelings by giving them space emotionally and sensationally (in your body). When you feel love, contentment, or joy, notice the sensations of these emotions as you feel them. Similarly, when you feel disappointment, grief, or anger, try to ride the waves of those emotions, too, even if they feel overwhelming or uncomfortable.
Though it might feel unpleasant now, feeling those difficult emotions will lead to feeling more ease and flow later. In fact, the more we avoid feeling unpleasant emotions and sensations, the more disservice we do to our bodies.
7. Make Sound!
Sing, hum, chant, moan, or sigh as you feel moved to. When you feel an emotion, notice if your body instinctively wants to make a sound that goes along with that emotion. Maybe there’s an ugh or a deep belly sigh that wants to be vocalized. It may feel weird to actually make these sounds aloud, especially if you are by yourself, but those sounds actually help to improve vagal tone.
Certain sounds, in particular, help to stimulate the vagus nerve in ways that are very effective for promoting healing. Lower pitches, like the kind of “Om” chanting that happens in some yoga classes, tend to work well. If chanting appeals to you, find chanting music playlists on Spotify and join in. Feel the vibration in your body as you do.
Try pretending you are a foghorn or cow. I’m serious! Trauma expert Peter Levine recommends pretending you are a foghorn calling out to ships on their way into shore by making a low “Voo” sound, but you can try “Moo” if you would rather pretend to be a cow. This can be helpful for kids. Three to six voos or moos on the exhale after doing some nice belly breaths and softening your jaw to generate some vibration in the chest and the abdomen can quickly and effectively disrupt some of the communication patterns that keep the body stuck in its pattern of IBS.
8. Practice Yoga.
Practicing yoga has all kinds of health benefits. One of them is that it stimulates the vagus nerve and helps our nervous system to be better regulated. You can read more about how yoga stimulates the vagus nerve in my four-part blog series on yoga and its nervous system benefits.
Yoga is a different experience for everyone. Take time to explore various styles, classes, and teachers. When you narrow in on the ones that work for you, consider having some private instruction with an experienced yoga instructor to ensure proper form in order to prevent injury. Try working yoga into your weekly routine, and don’t forget to focus on your breath!
9. Play or Listen to Music.
Feel what happens to your body as you play an instrument or listen to music. Experiment with different tones and genres. Find the music that is calming but not sleep-inducing. The idea is to help your body to find more ease and flow. Pay particular attention to your breath, throat, chest, and belly while you notice the effect different kinds of music have on your body.
If you play an instrument, try playing some of the lower tones, or seek out relaxing music with bass tones. Feel the vibrations. Alternatively, turn on the music at home and turn up the bass. Sit near the speaker. Feel the vibrations. Hum or chant along if you feel moved to do so.
10. Spend Time with Animals.
Hanging out and being affectionate with animals is great for our nervous systems. Whether you have a dog, cat, snake, rat, or a whole bunch of goats, try to spend time every day cuddling with or having a sensory experience with your pet(s).
When you love up your pet, you are activating your parasympathetic nervous system. But you really get the vagus nerve going when you love up a cat that’s purring while lying on top of your chest or belly. The purr sounds and vibrations that cats make stimulate the vagus nerve in us! Hang out with your cat for a good ten minutes or more, and you’ve just done wonders for your body.
Stimulating your vagus nerve in these ten ways – especially if you are present and embodied with your feelings and sensations as you do so – will help to interrupt the dysfunctional communication patterns between your gut and your brain that are generating, perpetuating, and exacerbating your digestive symptoms. By stimulating the vagus nerve directly in the tens ways above, you’re actually disrupting that pattern and giving yourself a break. See what happens during that break, and experiment with sustaining those breaks for longer periods of time. Play with this. Enjoy stimulating your vagus nerve.
For more details on how to practice these ten things, visit the Don’t Hate Your Guts website where you can sign up to have weekly blog posts and the video of the week sent straight to your inbox. You’ll also receive updates about the exciting webinar series I’m about to launch. You can also follow Don’t Hate Your guts on Facebook. Watch this week’s video just below.
Healing is a process. You know the destination. I’ve got the roadmap.
Don’t hate your guts. Instead, discover how to heal your body.