How To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve For Anxiety Relief

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

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Published on

June 05, 2024

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Updated on

June 05, 2024

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Robert Stevens

Neuroplasticity

Do you struggle with anxiety due to an underactive vagus nerve? In this article, we will discuss the function of the vagus nerve, how it contributes to both health and disease and how to stimulate the vagus nerve to decrease anxiety and improve overall well-being.

At re-origin, we empower those struggling with chronic conditions to heal themselves through self-directed neuroplasticity techniques. Your brain is an incredibly powerful organ, and it has the ability to change. So, if you struggle with anxiety caused by an underactive vagus nerve, our program is here to help. Join the re-origin program today. 

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve, also known as the vagal nerve, is one of the main components of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), meaning it most commonly contributes to functions during rest and digestion. It originates at the brain stem and courses through the throat, chest, and abdomen.1 Because of its extensive distribution throughout the body, the vagus nerve impacts many organs, including the brain, heart, stomach, and digestive tract; thus, when the vagus nerve is impacted negatively, it can affect numerous body systems.

What does the Vagus Nerve control?

The vagus serves various bodily functions, including control of mood, immune system response, digestion, and heart rate modulation.2

When activated, the vagus nerve sends a message to our body to relax and rest. Intentional activation of this nerve over time can contribute to long-term improvements in mental health, decreased pain, improved immune function and digestion, and overall increases in well-being.3

How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

Below, we will expand on multiple techniques you can practice to promote vagal nerve stimulation and reduce stress and anxiety.

Neuroplasticity Exercises 

Neuroplasticity is defined as the ability of the brain to alter its functioning by gradually creating new neural pathways and synapses. With self-directed neuroplasticity (also known as brain retraining) taught in the re-origin program, you can help your brain break old pathways of negative thoughts and behaviors related to anxiety and vagus nerve underactivation. When these old pathways are broken, new and empowering pathways are built. In addition, new habits and behaviors contributing to proper activation of the vagus nerve are more easily implemented. When you change the way you think about your body and its limitations, you change the way your body functions, thus breaking a vicious cycle and creating a virtuous circle of health and healing.

Meditation & Deep Breathing

Since underactivation of the vagus nerve can cause anxiety, participating in an activity that puts your attention on a single point of focus, even for a few moments, can help calm your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) and increase your Parasympathetic Nervous System. Deep breathing also activates your vagus nerve, further decreasing stress and anxiety. Try setting your timer for 90 seconds and simply notice how the air you breathe feels as it flows in and out of your nose and mouth. If your attention starts drifting, be kind to yourself and return to your breathing. Try this once or twice a day, especially when you feel anxious.

Interval & Endurance Training 

Research has shown that those who exercise have higher vagus nerve stimulation than those who do not.4 However, it is optional to perform 60 minutes of high-intensity or endurance training daily. Aim to participate in an exercise routine that supports your body and has realistic goals. 

Body Massages

Self-massage of the face, neck, and shoulders can help with vagus nerve stimulation. Since the nerve runs down from the brainstem, movement, and mobilization of the musculature surrounding the area will help increase vagus nerve activity and produce a sense of calm.

Soothing Music

Listening to soothing music, especially while singing or humming, vibrates the musculature around the vagus nerve. When this occurs, the vagus nerve becomes more active, calming the sympathetic nervous system and improving the function of various organs throughout the throat, chest, and abdomen.

Cold-Water Immersion

When immersed in cold water for short periods (as short as 16 seconds),5 blood vessels in the body become constricted (narrowed). This constriction can activate the vagus nerve, which will again contribute to improvements in the overall function of the heart, stomach, and digestive tract.

Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Minimize Seizures For Those With Epilepsy

Stimulating your vagus nerve can reduce nervous system over-activity, which often contributes to seizures. When the vagus nerve is underactive, the nervous system is usually in a sympathetic state (also known as fight or flight). Vagal nerve stimulation can calm the nervous system and regulate nerve impulses, lessening the chance of irregular nerve impulses that cause seizures.6

Treat Depression + Regulate Your Emotions

Activation of the vagus nerve helps regulate mood. Decreasing the sympathetic response by increasing the parasympathetic response can lessen the symptoms of major depressive disorder.

Reduce Blood Pressure + Lower Your Heart Rate

When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body can enter a rest and relaxation state, which encourages lower blood pressure and heart rate.

Reduce Inflammation

If you experience high stress levels, your body is most likely responding by overproducing the stress hormone cortisol. This overproduction of cortisol creates inflammation throughout the body. By activating the vagus nerve, the effect of cortisol is reduced, followed by a reduction in inflammation.

Treat Migraines And Cluster Headaches

Stimulating the vagus nerve can interrupt overactive pain pathways in the brain, thus reducing the intensity and frequency of migraines and cluster headaches.7

Reduce Your Anxiety With re-origin’s Brain Retraining Program

At re-origin, we have seen the power of brain retraining in reducing anxiety by helping with vagus nerve underactivation. Approximately 95% of the participants in our program thus far have reported numerous positive changes and improvements in their overall well-being, including a 26% reduction in anxiety.

If you are struggling with anxiety or an underactive vagus nerve, consider using the power of self-directed neuroplasticity to change the way your brain responds to anxiety and stress. For more information, join us for a free info call.

References

  1. Kenny, B. J. (2022, November 7). Neuroanatomy, cranial nerve 10 (Vagus nerve). StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537171/
  2. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus nerve as modulator of the Brain–Gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
  3. Allied Services Integrated Health. (2020, June 23). The vagus nerve: your secret weapon in fighting stress. Allied Services Integrated Health System. https://www.allied-services.org/news/2020/june/the-vagus-nerve-your-secret-weapon-in-fighting-s/#:~:text=WE%20can%20stimulate%20our%20vagus,pain%20management%2C%20wellbeing%20and%20resilience.
  4. Jungmann, M., Vencatachellum, S., Van Ryckeghem, D., & Vögele, C. (2018). Effects of cold stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in healthy participants: randomized controlled trial. JMIR Formative Research, 2(2), e10257. https://doi.org/10.2196/10257
  5. Kai, S., Nagino, K., Ito, T., Oi, R., Nishimura, K., Morita, S., & Yaoi, R. (2016). Effectiveness of moderate intensity interval training as an index of autonomic nervous activity. Rehabilitation Research and Practice, 2016, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6209671
  6. Vagus Nerve stimulation (VNS) therapy. (n.d.). Epilepsy Foundation. https://www.epilepsy.com/treatment/devices/vagus-nerve-stimulation-therapy#:~:text=Vagus%20nerve%20stimulation%20(VNS)%20may,in%20the%20left%20chest%20area.
  7. Vagus nerve stimulation - Mayo Clinic. (2023, April 18). https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/vagus-nerve-stimulation/about/pac-20384565

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

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