Vagus Nerve

Vagus Nerve Exercises for Quick Stress Relief

You don’t need to meditate for hours every day for months on end to experience stress and anxiety relief. The vagus nerve could hold the potential to turn a body in a “fight or flight” mode or chronic stress to one of ease and calm quicker and easier than you think.


The Complex Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is the longest and one of the major nerves in the human body. It is a paired nerve, meaning that there is one on each side of the body, and it extends from the brainstem to various organs in the chest and abdomen, so has extensive distribution throughout the body.

It consists of both motor and sensory fibres, meaning that it carries signals from the brain to different organs and also transmits sensory information from those organs back to the brain.

Functionally, the vagus nerve is a crucial component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating various involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and much more.

The vagus nerve also plays a role in regulating the autonomic functions of several organs, including the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, stomach, and intestines. It helps to control the muscles of these organs, influencing their movement, secretion, and overall function.


Stress and Anxiety Relief

Moreover, recent research has shed light on the vagus nerve’s involvement in the mind-body connection and its impact on mental and emotional well-being. Stimulation of the vagus nerve, either through targeted techniques or implanted devices, is being explored as a potential therapy for various conditions, including epilepsy, depression, anxiety disorders, and even certain inflammatory diseases.

With such a wide-ranging reach throughout the body, it’s not surprising that this nerve is so important and has an impact on our emotional state.

Stimulating the vagus nerve helps to rewire your brain from stress and anxiety. They help to slow down the heart and breathing rate, relax the muscles, and much more. It signals the body that it’s safe to relax and enter a state of recovery where your body can get to work on healing.

Vagus Nerve Exercises you can Try Right Now

Here’s a simple vagus nerve reset you can try at home or even in the office when sitting at your desk. It was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, who is the author of the Polyvagal Theory, and it usually only takes a couple of minutes to feel the effect!

  1. Interweave fingers of both hands and place behind the head
  2. Without turning your head, look to the right as far as you can
  3. Remain here until you spontaneously sigh, yawn or swallow
  4. Return eyes to their neutral state
  5. Repeat on the other side

Here’s another one with an added stretch called the half-salamander exercise:

  1. Look to the right without turning the head
  2. Tilt your head to the right towards your shoulder, reaching your right ear towards your shoulder
  3. Hold for 60 to 90 seconds
  4. Then return the eyes and head back to neutral
  5. Look to the left without turning the head
  6. Tilt your head to the left towards your shoulder, reaching your left ear towards your shoulder
  7. Hold for 60 to 90 seconds
  8. Then return the eyes and head back to neutral

A variation of this exercise is to look in the opposite direction of the head tilt so the head tilts right and eyes look left and vice versa.

You will likely notice after the exercises that you are able to turn your head easier with greater range of motion. Practice these exercises 3-4 times a day, little and often is the best approach.


Other Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve as You go About Your Day

  • Deep and Slow Breathing: Engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing, where you inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your belly, and exhale slowly through your mouth. This type of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and promotes relaxation.
  • Singing, Chanting, or Humming: Are activities that involve using your vocal cords, and can stimulate the vagus nerve due to its connection to the muscles in the throat and larynx.
  • Cold Exposure: Brief exposure to cold water or cold showers can activate the vagus nerve and increase its activity. You can start with ending your shower with a few seconds of cold water or use a cold pack on your face and neck.
  • Laughter: Genuine laughter can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase its activity. Engage in activities that bring you joy and laughter, such as watching a funny video, spending time with loved ones, or practicing laughter yoga.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness: Regular meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown to increase vagal tone. Set aside some time for meditation or incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine.
  • Exercise: Engaging in moderate-intensity exercises like yoga, tai chi, or walking can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote its activity.
  • Massage: Gentle massage, particularly around the neck and throat area, can help stimulate the vagus nerve. You can try massaging your neck or gently pressing on the area just behind your earlobe.
  • Social Connections: Positive social interactions, such as spending time with loved ones, hugging, or engaging in meaningful conversations, can activate the vagus nerve and increase its activity.

There are many ways that you can activate your vagus nerve without changing your routine. You could hum or sing in the shower, take some deep abdominal breaths in the car or when sitting at your desk, splash some cold water on your face when you visit the bathroom or watch more comedies. Get creative so they seamlessly fit into your day.

These techniques may vary in effectiveness for different individuals, and it’s important to listen to your body and find what works best for you. If you have any specific health concerns or are considering vagus nerve stimulation for therapeutic purposes, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional who can guide you and support you on your journey.