Mental Challenges

How To Tap the Power of the Vagus Nerve To Stop an Anxious Thought in Its Tracks

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
I don't know about you, but I feel like I've been in "fight or flight" mode since March 2020. It seems that somewhere between a contentious political climate, an ongoing pandemic, and a worsening climate crisis, relaxing has been put on the back burner. I'm certainly not alone: As of October, 62 percent of Americans reported feeling more anxious than they did during the same time last year. So if your worries are running wild and you're in need of some serious decompression, we asked a couple of therapists how to stimulate your vagus nerve for a few moments of well-deserved relief.

For a brief biology lesson: The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and runs through the neck and the throat all the way down to the abdomen. "Also called 'the wandering nerve,' [it] is the longest nerve pathway in the body. It is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for 'rest and digest,'" says Kimberly Schmidt Bevans, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor and board certified dance and movement therapist in Brookline, Massachusetts. The nerve acts as a messenger between your body and your brain, sending love notes (okay, "signals") that it's time to relax, digest, and recover. "Whether we are aware of it or not, the vagus nerve is essential for us to recover from trauma, stress, and survival states, bringing us back into connection, rest and equilibrium in our body and brain," adds Bevans.

"[T]he vagus nerve is essential for us to recover from trauma, stress and survival states, bringing us back into connection, rest and equilibrium in our body and brain." —Kimberly Schmidt Bevans, LMHC

Learning to tap into the vagus nerve is a valuable skill in moments of crisis. "When we are able to access our vagus nerve, we can engage our parasympathetic nervous system which helps relax our body," says Monica Nastasi, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and somatic experiencing therapist in Brooklyn, New York. "When our body is more relaxed, we are able to pause and evaluate our automatic thoughts that fuel anxiety. When we are able to evaluate these thoughts, our body relaxes more." This creates a more positive conversation between your brain and your body, which—let's face it—we all sort of want right now.

That all sounds great, but how exactly are you supposed to stimulate the vagus nerve? It's easier than you'd think. Keep reading for tricks to help you calm down when those anxious thoughts are spiraling out of control.

How to stimulate your vagus nerve, according to therapists

1. Breathe

I know breathing is about as cliché a piece of advice as, say, "follow your dreams" these days, but there's a reason it has been practiced for thousands upon thousands of years: it works. "One way to access your vagus nerve and calm down is to take slow deep breaths from your belly, focusing on long exhales. Try putting your hands on your belly while inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for six counts, and holding for two counts. Repeat this six times," says Nastasi.

2. Engage with people you love

"Feeling safe with another person and in relationships is a key component of mental health and well-being. Polyvagal Theory and the work of Stephen Porges emphasizes co-regulation in relationships in one part of the vagus nerve pathway system," says Bevans. This is called "ventral vagal social engagement," and you can tap into it by hanging out with those who love and support you. So go ahead: Call one of your mom. Make a coffee date with a friend. Ask your significant other to lunch.

3. Take an ice cold shower

According to Bevans, an ice cold shower or a brisk winter walk also stimulates the vagus nerve. One small 2018 study found that cold stimulation on the back of the neck resulted in higher heart rate variability (HRV)—the variation in time between each heartbeat—and a lower heart rate (a cardiac change that suggests vagal stimulation and a reduction in stress). While more research is needed to fully understand this connection, it's great news for those who dig an ice-cold shower.

4. Meditate and practice yoga

Like taking a cold shower, meditation may help increase HRV and, thus, activate the vagus nerve. There's also some research that suggests that the intentional moving and breathing you do in yoga may help vagal tone, but again, more research is needed before we can know for sure.

Flow through a quick yoga class to say "hello" to your vagus nerve:

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