What is it and should you be doing it?
Your vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system (controlling the things that the body does automatically) and it’s the main nerve involved in our stress responses. The nerve starts in the brain stem, passes the left ear, goes down the back of the throat, past the heart, lungs and diaphragm and then branches out like tree roots in the gut.
When it’s working properly or is “well toned”, the vagus nerve monitors information from our senses — increasing heart rate and blood pressure when we’re under stress, and relaxing them when it thinks the threat has passed. When we have low vagal tone, our vagus has less capacity to respond to stress and so we stay in a state of fear or anxiety. Vagal toning is a way to stimulate the nerve to work better as a way to manage stress more effectively.
If you feel that you are often in fight or flight mode, then supporting the vagus nerve, as well as your adrenal glands (that respond to the nervous system triggers) could be really helpful. There are devices like the Sensate, that look like a plastic pebble and emit low frequency sound waves. You place them on your breast bone (where the vagus nerve passes nearby) and for 10 minutes a day, whilst also closing your eyes and thinking relaxing thoughts. You can feel the pulsations through your chest and tummy.
You can’t talk yourself out of this kind of stress response. It comes from the primitive part of the nervous system and the body releases stress hormones, whether we like it or not. Direct action on the vagus nerve puts the body at ease and bypasses the mind. Vagus nerve stimulation techniques can help stress induced symptoms like increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate as well as improving our digestive function, reducing migraines and anxiety. Vagal toning has even been used to help soldiers with PTSD.
Anything that conveys low-frequency sound waves into the throat or chest will increase vagal tone and relax you. Humming, gargling and ohmming (like you do in some types of meditation), singing and deep breathing all stimulate the vagus in an easy way that anyone can do once or twice a day.
Nerve from your brain to your gut that holds the key to keeping calm
- Deep belly breathing
‘Put your hands on the side of your ribs, push your tummy out and inhale through the nose, filling your body with breath. Exhale through the mouth. Do it five times, to start putting the body at ease.
No mouthwash required — simply spend a few seconds gargling with water when you clean your teeth, making the lowest sound you can without straining. The vagus nerve passes through the throat and low frequency sounds will stimulate it.
- Chant a long, low ‘om’
Om is a guttural sound that resonates in the roof of the mouth and back of the throat where the vagus nerve starts. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly, and you will feel the vibration in your abdomen and chest, too. Make sure the “mmmmm” part of the Om is long. Humming brings the sound inside, increasing the effect.
- Join a choir
Like chanting and humming, singing vibrates the vocal chords, which stimulates the vagus nerve. Singing in unison is especially powerful, as the vibrations play off each other and you are surrounded by sound.
- Dip face in iced water
Cold water in the face stimulates the mammalian dive reflex, which slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, and relaxes your body.