The vagus nerve is heavily involved in Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulation, and the regulation of your ANS is key to your healing. If you suffer from anxiety, panic symptoms (or attacks), depression, a functional medical problem like chronic (back) pain, or functional gastrointestinal problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) then you should care about your vagus nerve.
In this blog post, I’m going to explain briefly what the vagus nerve is and then give you twelve ways to stimulate it in order to facilitate ANS regulation. Next time I’ll talk more about the ANS and get into the details about how the vagus nerve is linked to the ANS.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus, or wandering, nerve, is the body’s 10th cranial (emanating from the brain) nerve connecting the brain to the gut, allowing them to communicate back and forth. This explains how stress and all kinds of feelings and emotions generate gut sensations and alter digestion.
The vagus nerve connects not only your brain with your gut but also your brain with the rest of your vital organs including the lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, colon, and other parts in the abdominal cavity. The vagus nerve is involved in “the regulation and slowing of the human heartbeat” (Broad, 2012, pg 42) and has been found to have “remarkable control over the body’s immune system, playing major roles, for instance, in fighting inflammation” (Broad, 2012, pg 42). Your nervous system is directly linked to your digestive, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, immune, and renal systems.
You should care about the vagus nerve because it is central to the parasympathetic, your body’s “rest-and digest”, nervous system, which is one of the three components of your ANS. If you know how to stimulate your vagus nerve in a pleasant way, then you have the power to disrupt the patterns of unpleasant communication between your nervous system and other parts of your body so that your body can rest and heal.
12 Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve in a Pleasant Way
The key to stimulating the vagus nerve is bringing conscious awareness to the feelings, sensations, energy, and vibrations in your body while you do and especially immediately following any of the below activities. In particular, when working with breath and especially sound like humming, chanting, sighing, purring, etc., pay specific attention to the sensations of vibration in the throat, chest, and belly regionsof your body. Notice shifts, even subtle shifts, in your body as you practice these activities. When you have pleasant experiences, really let yourself feel just how pleasant those experiences feel to your body. Feel the pleasant feelings, sensations, movement, energy, etc. See if you can notice changes occurring in your own body that bring about greater ease and flow.
- Get Comfy. Make a habit of taking time as you plant yourself on chairs, on couches, and on beds to get yourself as physically comfortable and well supported as you can. Take time to grab pillows or other props and place them strategically where you need them in order for your body to find greater ease than it otherwise would have. Feel the difference now that you are more comfortable. Breathe and enjoy feeling more comfortable.
- Breathe consciously (with your belly). Pay attention to your breath. Don’t push or force yourself to breathe deeply or differently. Breathe normally, whatever that is, and consciously, for some moments, maybe minutes. When your mind wanders, gently, compassionately without judgment bring it back to your breath. If you notice that your belly rises and falls as you breathe or if your belly is able to soften with your having to mentally force or push it to, then 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, gently, compassionately without judgment bring it back to your breath.
- Practice Meditation. Meditation has many forms. All meditation tends to fall into one of two camps: concentration or insight/awareness. Concentration type meditations involved focusing your attention on one thing, typically something outside of yourself. Insight/awareness meditation is focused on cultivating insight or awareness typically by focusing on something, often the breath, inside of oneself or keeping an open awareness. Concentration is needed for both forms of meditation. For various reasons I typically recommend starting with forms of insight/awareness meditation. Two forms that are easy to learn and accessible are mindfulness (more secular) and vipassana (less secular) meditation. If you’re new to meditation, take a class. Work your way over time, perhaps months, from guided short meditation to 20-30-minute silent (no music or guidance) meditations. 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!
- Feel Your Emotions. Feeling emotions begins with awareness of emotions. Some of us are more aware of certain emotions and less aware of others. If need practice at becoming more aware of your emotions, click here and practice this exercise just focusing on the Emotional Questions multiple times daily for at least a week. If you have awareness of your emotions, then feel them, especially the pleasant ones! When you feel love, contentment, or joy, notice the sensations of these emotions as you feel them. Make sounds that help you to express the feeling. The goal is to be able to feel them consciously as they arise, work with them appropriately (depending on which emotion it is), and to increase our capacity to feel the full range of human emotions so that we deepen our enjoyment of the pleasant emotions (and the accompanying sensations) and lessen the unpleasantness of the unpleasant emotions (and the accompanying sensations). Riding the waves of your emotions without getting overwhelmed or stuck in them takes practice. If you need help with this, work with a psychotherapist.
- Make sound. Hum, chant, moan, sigh, or sing regularly. When you feel an emotion, notice if your body instinctively wants to make a sound that goes along with that emotion. Is there an “Ugh!” or a “Sigh” that wants to be vocalized. It may feel weird to you to actually make these sounds aloud, especially if you are by yourself, but it is actually a way of directly activating the vagus nerve. Certain sounds, in particular, help a lot. Lower pitches, for example, tend to work well. The kind of “Ohm” chanting that happens in some yoga classes is the kind that really works well for the vagus nerve. “Voo” is a sound trauma expert Peter Levine recommends (Levine, 2010). Drop your jaw to allow your mouth and throat to open. Then voo in a foghorn tone several times as you exhale from your belly. Breathe in and do it again three to eight times, depending on the intensity. Pause and feel what’s happening.
- Soften the Jaw and Pelvis. Ever been to a yoga class and done pigeon pose or some other big hip-opener and then just as you’re feeling tension heard your teacher encourage you to soften your jaw? The jaw and the pelvis are connected; they tend to get tight together, and they tend to soften together. And the softening of those parts of your body activate the parasympathetic nervous system/vagus nerve. Sit 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. See if you can allow your tongue to soften down to the bottom of your mouth or just lower than it is. Notice the subtle shifts that occur as you do this. Breathe and enjoy the difference.
- Practice Yoga. Practicing yoga has all kinds of benefits. One of them is that it stimulates the vagus nerve in all kinds of ways. Yoga (depending on the form, teacher, and specific class) tends to incorporate many of the things I’ve just mentioned like conscious breath with movement, softening tight spots in the body, and making the right kinds of sounds. You can read more about how yoga stimulates the vagus nerve here [link to my blog post on yoga and the nervous system benefits]. 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!
- Play, Laugh, and Smile. Connect with friends and family. Whenever possible, work with and through the issues that get in the way of having good connections with people. If necessary, minimize contact with those who don’t allow you to feel at ease, and certainly maximize contact with those who do. Seek out good, fun company. As often as possible spend time with people you greatly enjoy doing things you greatly enjoy, engage in activities that bring you to the point of belly laughing, play fun games with adult company, play with your children or other people’s children, get silly, listen to and watch programs that make you laugh and smile, or go to a comedy club.
- Play Music. If you play an instrument, play music you love. Feel what happens throughout your body as you do. Pay particular attention to your breath, throat, chest, and belly. Enjoy making music. Play the lower tones. Or go listen to some live music. Seek out relaxing music with bass tones. If you know a bassist, ask to come over and listen to him or her practice. Sit closely enough that you can feel the vibrations. Or put on the music at home and turn up the bass. Put the speaker on your chest or belly. Hum or chant along. Or you could always listen to some chanting music and hum or chant along!
- Get Your Cat to Purr While on Your Chest or Belly (Love up Your Pet). Spending time hanging out being affectionate with animals in general is a really great thing to do for our nervous systems, so whether you have a dog, cat, snake, rat, or goats, spend time every day loving up your pet. While 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 sound and vibration cats make stimulate the vagus nerve in us! Just hang out with your cat for a good ten minutes or more, and you’ve just done wonders for your body.
- Have Professional Bodywork. Receiving touch from a professional trained to touch you in the way you enjoy is a powerful way to directly activate the parasympathetic nervous system. A professional massage is wonderful because you don’t have to feel guilty about asking for touch at exactly the right pressure and in the exact right place. Craniosacral work is another modality you might want to try. Having someone hold your head in a very gentle manner can be incredibly relaxing and enjoyable. If budget is an issue, seek out new bodywork professionals looking to earn licensure hours; they often charge a discounted rate. There are also massage therapy businesses that offer promotional discounts for purchases of massages in bulk. I recommend a once a month bodywork session.
- Give and receive hugs and affection with family, friends, and loved ones. Spend time with your affectionate family and friends. Invite and be receptive to their affection as they offer it. Or initiate contact (with permission, of course). If you tend to be a giver instead of a receiver, or if you tend to shy away from all kinds of affection, work on being more receptive to it. Hug your friends. Snuggle with your kids. Go to a cuddle-party.—Yes, there is such a thing!—If you have a romantic partner, have more sex and increase the amount of non-sexual affectionate touch between you and your partner. It’s great to have professional bodywork sessions, but on a day-to-day basis, find ways to receive more touch and affection. We human beings actually require quite a lot of it.
You may already be doing some or all of the above activities. That’s great if you are. Now focus on shifting how you do them such that you are using your sustained attention to focus on specific things as mentioned above. Deepen your parasympathetic experience to increase your body’s capacity for lower levels of stimulation, allowing your body to expend more energy regulating and healing itself and less energy managing stress. More about this next time.
Broad, William J. (2012). The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Levine, Peter A. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.