Cool Nerves, Calm Mind: Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve to Ease Anxiety
I get anxious easily but as fast as I get anxious, it takes me a long time to calm down and feel at ease. When I get anxious, I try to calm myself down by practicing deep breathing but sometimes it doesn’t work and I am left with no other option but to wait it out.
And let me tell you, I’m not a patient person so the more I’m anxious, the more I get agitated. So, what to do when I need to calm down without the long wait? Well, if this is something you can resonate with, then I have the perfect solution for you.
Calming down by activating the parasympathetic response instantly by stimulating the vagus nerve!
In this busy world that we live in, anxiety has become an immediate concern. While I’ve suggested various approaches to manage anxiety in my other article, one of the lesser-known methods is still unexplored – the stimulation of the vagus nerve. This part of our nervous system can have a profound effect on our well-being, including calming anxiety.
Today, we’re exploring how you can stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system to quickly ease your anxiety.
The Role of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, scientifically known as the tenth cranial nerve, is the longest (and possibly) most complex nerve in the human body. The vagus nerve originates from your brain and extends to your abdomen. Because of its wandering nature, this nerve is also termed “the wandering nerve”.
The vagus nerve or vagal nerve plays an essential role in regulating our body functions, including heart rate, digestion, immunity, reflex actions, and breathing. This nerve is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system – or the “rest and digest” response – the one that counteracts the stress response aka the “fight or flight” response.
The stimulation of the vagal nerve has been linked to various health benefits including;
- Reduced inflammation
- Better digestion
- Elevated mood, and
- Calming anxiety
How Can Cooling The Vagus Nerve Help with Anxiety?
Recently, researchers have uncovered an interesting relationship between the vagus nerve and anxiety, especially the concept of “vagal tone”. Vagal toning refers to the activity level of the vagus nerve. A high vagal tone can be linked to better management of stress response and lower levels of anxiety.
The technique of cooling the vagus nerve is also known as vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and has proven to ease anxiety. In a study published in 2016, it was found that mild cooling or icing of the vagal nerve led to a significant lessening of anxiety symptoms. The cooling appears to regulate nerve activity and promote relaxation, contributing to the overall calming of the nervous system that is activated during the anxiety response.
In an older study from 2008, it was found that cold exposure to the vagus nerve causes a shift in the parasympathetic nervous system. In a 2018 study, it was found that when you use a cold compress to cool the vagus nerve (especially the neck) it slows down the heart rate that becomes elevated due to anxiety.
In a similar study published in 2010, it was shown that when a person drank a glass of ice-cold water, it helped slow down their heart rate in the same way that applying a cold compress did.
Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
If the idea of quickly calming down by stimulating the vagus nerve sound interesting to you, then here are some ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to ease your anxiety;
1. Deep Breathing Exercises:
You can practice deep breathing, especially diaphragmatic breathing, to stimulate the vagus nerve and trigger the relaxation response. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, and exhale through your mouth for a count of 6. Repeat this exercise as many times as you need.
2. Mindfulness Meditation:
Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve is by practicing mindfulness meditation. This practice helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, boosting the vagal tone as well. Focus on your breathing and ground yourself in the present moment.
3. Gentle Movement Exercises:
Gentle movement exercises such as yoga and tai chi combine movement, breathing, and mindfulness – all elements that help contribute to the increase in vagal tone. When you practice gentle movement exercises, you stay in the moment, breathe deeply, and move your limbs that stimulate the vagus nerve.
4. Using Cold Exposure:
Cold compresses, cold showers, cold baths, drinking ice-cold water, or even splashing cold water on your face and neck can stimulate the vagus nerve into activating the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and calm.
Additional Tips to Ease Anxiety
Other ways you can ease anxiety can include;
1. Engaging in regular physical exercise can boost your well-being and help ease anxiety as physical movements can release endorphins and other mood booster neurotransmitters.
2. Eating a well-balanced diet can also help ease your anxiety and calm you down. Diets rich in whole foods, lean proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables can promote gut health, which is also closely linked to the vagus nerve and anxiety management.
3. Try to get quality sleep and allow your body to recover and regulate stress hormones naturally. Getting enough sleep is also a good way to calm the vagus nerve naturally.
4. You can also try to engage in activities that bring you joy to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. When you participate in activities that bring you joy, happy hormones are released in your brain, promoting healthier nervous systems.
5. You can also try humming, singing, or listening to music to ease your anxiety and bring a soothing effect on your mind and body. In a study, it was found that music can also stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
6. Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through foot massage. Foot massage can increase vagal tone and lower blood pressure. So, if you’re feeling anxious, then you can quickly give your foot a massage to stimulate the vagus nerve and lower your anxiety.
Stimulating the vagus nerve to ease anxiety is a fun and effective approach to manage anxiety symptoms and quickly calm down. Understanding the role of the vagus nerve in regulating the body’s stress response and practicing various techniques such as cold exposure, deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and gentle movement exercises can help you feel empowered to manage anxiety on your own and take charge of your well-being in your hands.
While various studies have proven the effectiveness of stimulating the vagus nerve to ease anxiety, research continues to evolve in understanding the vagus nerve’s potential to improve anxiety management and treatment.
I hope this article helped you understand the role of the vagus nerve in easing anxiety and promoting relaxation. Let me know what you think about this unique technique in the comments below.