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5 Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve and Calm Your Nervous System

Vagus nerve stimulation is one of those daily practices that can have a huge impact on your health. But what is the vagus nerve and what exactly does it do?

The term ‘nervous system regulation’ has become a big buzz word in the holistic health world, and for good reason. By learning how to identify patterns of chronic stress, and turn off the mechanisms that keep you in survival mode, you can return the body to a calm and relaxed state

This can positively impact essential systems like your digestion, heart rate, immune function, detoxification pathways, and so much more. 

If you’re struggling with health issues like autoimmune disease or chronic hives, an overactive stress response could be impacting your body’s ability to heal. 

This is why learning how to stimulate the vagus nerve is one of the most simple and effective tools you have for regulating your stress response, and creating homeostasis in the body. 

And the best part is, many of the tools I share today are completely free! 

What is the Vagus Nerve? 

The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve in your brainstem. It plays an essential role in digestion, immune function, and heart rate because it connects the brain to vital organs like your lungs, heart, liver, kidney, stomach, and intestines. 

Think of the vagus nerve as the messenger of the body, picking up important signals from your organs to let your brain know what’s going on…and vice versa!

The vagus nerve also controls another vital function in the body: your stress response

In fact, 75% of your parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “rest and digest” mode) exists in the vagus nerve! 

When your brain feels safe and relaxed, your vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system which turns “on” important functions like digestion, detoxification, nutrient absorption, immune regulation, and cell repair. 

If the brain does NOT feel safe, the vagus nerve will activate the sympathetic nervous system, your “fight or flight” response. 

The vagus nerve will then send messages to the rest of the body to turn “off” or deprioritise those important functions to give your body the energy it needs to either:

  1. Fight 
  2. Run away
  3. Or freeze and play dead

In this way, the vagus nerve is incredibly influential when it comes to a majority of body functions and overall health. 

It’s the control panel influencing everything from the way your body digests food, to how well your immune system functions, to your ability to detoxify unwanted waste. It even has a role to play in social engagement and connection. 

That’s why learning how to regulate your stress response is KEY to overcoming chronic health issues. 

And the good news is, by learning how to stimulate the vagus nerve, you can return your body to a relaxed state, turning these important functions back on after a stressful encounter. 

Decoding Your Stress Response 

There are three types of stress: physical, chemical, and emotional. 

Physical stress relates to accidents, injuries, or physical trauma to the body. 

Chemical stress includes viruses, bacteria, toxins, and chemical reactions like an immune response or high blood sugar levels. 

Emotional stress includes things like tragedy, loss, financial worries, relationship issues, and day-to-day annoyances.

All living beings are designed to tolerate stress for a short amount of time, and the body responds in a few different ways. 

The “Fight or Flight” Stress Response

The “fight or flight” response happens when your sympathetic nervous system is activated and releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol

Your heart rate will increase, your pupils will dilate, and blood sugar rises in order to be pumped to your muscles to give you the energy you need to fight or run away.

This is a natural response that allows you to handle life threatening situations, like fighting off an attacker, or getting in a car accident. 

The “Freeze” Stress Response

Think of the “freeze” response as a backup survival mechanism when your body can’t fight or run away. When this happens, your parasympathetic nervous system overrides your “fight or flight” response.

Instead of releasing stress chemicals like adrenaline, the body will numb itself with natural tranquilizing chemicals called opioids

You feel calm because the body is swimming in these tranquilizing chemicals, but in reality, it’s trying to protect you by emotionally removing you from the situation.

This is a common stress response for people who experience trauma like abuse or assault, where they describe a feeling of being “outside the body” during and after the attack. 

So – what happens when these stress responses never shut off?

Just like your body can become addicted to drugs or food, you can become addicted to the chemicals of stress. And when this happens, it takes your “fight-flight-freeze” response longer and longer to shut off, until eventually you’re living in a state of chronic stress (otherwise known as survival mode).

Signs You’re Living in Survival Mode 

Even if you don’t feel stressed out or you aren’t in any physical danger, your nervous system can still be dysregulated. 

This is often known as disassociation. 

Disassociation can trick you into thinking you’re in a calm or relaxed state, when in reality, your body is living in survival mode.

This leaves your body in constant high alert, and important functions like digestion and detoxification are turned down.

Physical Signs You’re Living in Survival Mode:

  • Shallow breathing or trouble breathing through the nose
  • Digestive issues and discomfort
  • Immune dysfunction – you get sick a lot
  • Your body language and facial cues lack emotional expression
  • Your voice often sounds monotone 

Emotional Signs You’re Living in Survival Mode:

  • You’re easily distracted in conversation and have trouble focusing on what people are saying
  • You struggle with making decisions or planning for the future
  • You’re always preparing for the worst case scenario
  • You’re very reactive to stressful situations that happened hours or even days ago
  • You have a fear of change or struggle with the unknown 

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

By practicing activities that stimulate the vagus nerve, you can improve your vagal tone. This basically trains your body to become more resilient to stress, so that you can return to “rest and digest” mode faster. 

Here are a few benefits to stimulating your vagus nerve:

  • Deeper sleep
  • Better focus
  • Higher tolerance for stress
  • Less reactive and more awareness to your triggers
  • Improved personal relationships
  • Less chronic pain and tension
  • Improved digestion
  • Increased immune function
  • Lower blood pressure

Here are 5 activities you can try to stimulate your vagus nerve and regulate your stress response:

Breathwork 

Most people who are chronically stressed are using their accessory breathing muscles (located in the chest) as opposed to their diaphragm. This leads to rapid, shallow breathing patterns.

To stimulate your vagus nerve, retrain your body to practice diaphragmatic breathing. 

You can do this by placing one hand on your chest, and one hand on your abdomen. Take a deep breath. If your chest expands, that means you’re using your accessory muscles to breathe. If your abdomen expands, you are breathing through your diaphragm.

Practice deep belly breathing for at least 5 minutes a day to stimulate your vagus nerve.

There are a variety of breathing techniques you can try like 4-7-8 breathing, box breathing, and alternate nostril breathing.   

Meditation 

A daily meditation practice can increase self-awareness, and help you identify the thought patterns that are creating stress. This can help you make different choices in your day-to-day life that positively impact your physical and mental health. 

Meditation also helps calm the chatter in your mind, and puts you in a relaxed state. By intentionally creating this safety for yourself, your vagus nerve can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and help you return to “rest and digest” mode. 

Humming or Singing 

Other than the main abdominal organs, your vagus nerve is also connected to your larynx, or voice box. It’s responsible for controlling speech muscle movements.

Humming and singing are both gentle ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and self-soothe. Hum while washing dishes, cleaning the house, driving to work, or any time you want to feel more relaxed!

Cold Therapy 

Regularly exposing yourself to cold, like taking cold showers, can train your body to breathe deeply under a controlled state of stress. This will improve your vagal tone, meaning your body will take less time to return to a relaxed state after stressful situations. 

Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises 

As humans, we all have a natural reflex mechanism in the body that turns on during stressful situations. This mechanism often appears as shaking or vibrating, and it’s our body’s way of releasing tension after a traumatic event and returning to a more relaxed state. 

Unfortunately, most of us repress this natural mechanism, which leads to stored tension and trapped emotions in the body. 

Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®) can activate this stress response in a safe and controlled environment so the body can release patterns of chronic stress and unresolved trauma, and return to a state of balance.

Working with a certified TRE practitioner is a fantastic way to begin healing your nervous system and improving vagal tone. 

If you want to experience the benefits of these exercises, book a TRE session with me here.

During our session I’ll guide you through a few simple yet profound exercises to release stored stress and trauma in the body that could be causing pain and hindering your body’s natural ability to heal.

You’ll even receive text support following our session to help you process any emotional or physical shifts that arise as the layers of stress or trauma are slowly brought to the surface and released.

If you’re ready to calm your nervous system and regulate your stress response, book a TRE session with me HERE.

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