Known as the social engagement system, the ventral vagal network runs upward from the diaphragm area to the brain stem, crossing over nerves in the lungs, neck, throat, and eyes. Actions involving these parts of the body — including deep breaths, gargling, humming, or even social cues like smiling or making eye contact with someone — send messages to the brain that it’s okay to relax.
Simple activities such as taking a deep breath. Hugging your pet or a friend. Reaching for the ceiling and stretch your limbs. Each of these simple acts bestows a sense of calm and comfort. And each works its soothing magic by activating a complicated system of nerves that connects the brain to the heart, the gut, the immune system, and many of the organs. That system is known collectively as the VAGUS NERVE.
In recent years, research has uncovered new information that has given us a greater appreciation of the role of the vagus nerve in health and wellness, so let’s take a closer look of some of this information.
The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves, which sprawl out from the brain and into the body like an intricate network of roots. These nerve networks act as lines of communication between the brain and the body’s many systems and organs. Some of the cranial nerves interpret sensory information collected by the skin, eyes, or tongue. Others control muscles or communicate with glands.
The vagus nerve, also called the “10th cranial nerve,” is the longest, largest, and most complex of the cranial nerves, and in some ways it’s also the least understood. Experts have linked its activity to symptom changes in people with migraine headaches, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, epilepsy, arthritis, and many other common ailments.
The more science learns about the vagus nerve, the more it seems that a better understanding of its function could unlock new doors to treating all manner of human suffering, while helping us support our body in better managing stress and anxiety.
Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” which is apt when one considers all the different parts of the body the vagus nerve reaches. “It seems like every year somebody finds a new organ or system that it talks with,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Field says that branches of the vagus nerve are connected to the face and voice. “We know that depressed people have low vagal activity, and this is associated with less intonation and less-active facial expressions,” she explains. A separate branch of the vagus nerve runs down to the gastrointestinal tract. Here, low vagal activity is associated with slowed gastric motility, which interferes with proper digestion,” she says.
Still other branches of the vagus nerve are connected to the heart, the lungs, and the immune system. The vagus nerve’s activation or deactivation is tied to the ebb or flow of hormones such as cortisol and the digestive hormone ghrelin, the amount of inflammation the immune system produces, and many other internal processes that shape human health and experience.
“There’s a massive bioelectrical and biochemical series of events that the vagus nerve is responsible for, and all that is almost impossible to map,” Field says.
How could one nerve system control so much? While some aspects of vagal activity are inscrutable, it’s clear that this nerve is the governor of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps control the body’s relaxation responses.
In simple terms, heightened vagal activity counteracts the stress response, which involves the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is fight or flight, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for repair and healing,” says Stephen Silberstein, MD, a professor of neurology and director of the Headache Centre at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.
Silberstein co-wrote a comprehensive 2016 review of the research on the vagus nerve. He says that heightened vagal activity slows heart rate and also switches off inflammation, in part by triggering the release of immune system calming chemicals.
There’s also evidence that activating the vagus nerve through electronic stimulation can produce a range of health benefits. “Depending on the frequency of the stimulation, we know it can turn off an asthma attack or an epileptic seizure,” Silberstein says. “It can turn off a migraine or cluster headache, and it can decrease the perception of acid reflux.”
Pick almost any common medical condition that’s made worse by stress or inflammation — everything from arthritis to inflammatory bowel disease. The research is showing that vagus nerve stimulation can help treat or relieve symptoms, additionally it can strengthen the body’s defence against viruses and disease.
In the past, this stimulation required a surgical implant in the chest that transmits electrical pulses directly into the vagus nerve. But some newer, non-invasive devices are now available that can treat migraine and cluster headaches are capable of stimulating the vagus nerve when pressed against the skin of the neck.
“More and more, we are learning how critical vagal activity is to attention and mood,” says Field. Already, there’s evidence that stimulating the vagus nerve may improve working memory or help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and we know have evidence that stimulating the vagus nerve can help with the treatment of some forms of depression.
The good news is that there are simple things you can do at home to help stimulate the vagus nerve. Calming yourself allows you to think clearly and process your difficult circumstances — which will further resolve stress. Here are some simple strategies:
1. Tune into how your body feels
If you’re not aware of how your body feels when you’re stressed, it’s hard to know when you need to give your nervous system some rest and relaxation. The first step back to “rest and digest,” Kolber says, is paying attention to your body’s sensations.
Lynn Bufka, PhD, Senior Director of Practice Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends making note of your body’s baseline physical state when you’re calm so you can notice how stress changes your body. Go for a walk, stretch your legs, or even bend over and touch your toes, noticing what feels good and what doesn’t. “The more we recognise our bodies’ capabilities and limitations, the more we can take care of them,” she says.
Once you have a general understanding of your body’s “baseline,” you can notice the small ways stress impacts you physically. For example, you might feel your shoulders slightly tense when you read the news about the latest case numbers. Then, you can take time to relax them — an act of compassionate self-care that not only relieves physical pain but signals to your ventral vagus nerve you’re in a safe place.
2. Monitor and regulate your breath
Mindful breathing, or paying focused attention to your breath can be a powerful way to self-regulate. Specifically, deep breathing directly stimulates the ventral vagal system, since the vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords.
Research shows that mindful, deep breathing from the diaphragm reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. In a 2017 study, people who participated in a guided breathing program resulted in lowering their cortisol (stress hormone) levels in their saliva immediately after the exercise.
However, there is a recommended technique. Boston-based therapist Kimberly Schmidt Bevans says the exhale is one of the most important aspects of mindful breathing. Exhaling longer than you inhale puts the ventral vagal network into action and promotes the rest and digest response. (see video for technique).
3. Compassionate attention
Social connection, whether with other people, or through what Kolber calls “compassionate attention” to yourself, is one of the most important ways to activate the ventral vagal network. You can’t go out with friends because of practicing social distancing, but you can FaceTime a loved one or have a meaningful conversation with someone you’re isolating with. Lanius says establishing a sense of safety and connection with someone — and making eye contact, even over a Zoom meeting — can cue your body to relax.
If there’s no one to socialize with, or if blurry, online interactions just aren’t cutting it, Schmidt Bevans says you can visualize someone you trust — even a pet — and imagine feelings of safety and connection. Or you can just hunker down in a relaxing room in your house. “If you’re stuck in your home, looking for cues of safety in your space or with another person can activate the ventral vagal system,” she says.
4. Harness anxious thoughts
The story you tell yourself about your stressors can dictate how your body responds.
“How you interpret your situation and its danger lays out the potential for how chronic your stress will be,” says Bufka. If you know external stressors aren’t going to change anytime soon, it’s important to minimise your perception of the threat by shifting how you respond mentally. Release the disappointment or pressure of what you cannot change and allow yourself to more freely concentrate on solutions you do have control over. For instance, rather than thinking about social distancing as being stuck in your house indefinitely, think about being home as a way to contribute to public health, and an opportunity to slow down.
Lanius says steering your thoughts in a more hopeful direction could cause the brain to send messages through the vagus nerve, triggering calm in all the organs and systems along the way.
One way to do that is by using your five senses. Going outside, listening to birds, and smelling a flower are all simple “grounding” activities, which Lanius says could help activate the ventral vagus nerve. Essentially, these things bring your body back to the present moment, which may feel safer to your nervous system than the potential scenarios of the future.
When you’re paying attention to both your mind and body under stress, you’ll feel more relaxed — and ultimately, more yourself. “When you’re in the hyped-up state of perceiving everything as a threat, all your resources will try to hold it together,” Bufka says. “If you try to cope with your emotional response, you’ll have more energy and resources to problem-solve.”