The Vagus Nerve: The Key to Calming a ‘Wigged-Out’ Autonomic Nervous System (fight/flight/freeze)
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
I get a lot of questions about how to calm and ground the nervous system. This may be for emotional distress, physical stress, or when dealing with stress around us. I also add that it is essential to practice calming strategies even when we feel relaxed, so we help the nervous system mindfully experience this relaxed state, and become comfortable and familiar with this relaxed experience. This blog addresses how to go about doing this.
So, to start……
The fight or flight response results from the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, reacting to stress. The stress can come from our thoughts or in response to an external event or stimuli. When people are in the stress response too long, too often, and with high intensity, there can be a sort of “spillover” effect. This "spillover" of excess stress response can flair up when there is no stimulant or at times that a high level of anxiety is not warranted. This can add to a feeling of being out of control and the belief that our brain is working against us.
The Fight or Flight Response
High levels of anxiety with continued intensity, duration, and frequency cause the body to react by releasing stress hormones that result in physiological changes: a pounding heart, the quickening of breathing, muscle tension, and sweating. These physical reactions are commonly known as the fight or flight response. This can leave us feeling that we have no control of our thoughts or bodies and are “wigging out.” This out-of-control feeling is usually associated with the sympathetic nervous system, best known as the fight-flight or freeze response.
Let’s not give the fight or flight reaction a bad rap. We need this response! Since the beginning of time, the sympathetic nervous system and its fight or flight response was intended as a survival mechanism so that mammals, including humans, can react quickly to a life-threatening situation. Today, many people have the same reaction to non-life-threatening stressors that cause high levels of anxiety.
Research supports that the long-term effect of chronic stress affects our psychological and physical health. This means that we need to ensure that our nervous system is flexible and does not stay ‘stuck’ in sympathetic, but rather move efficiently between sympathetic and its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system response. The parasympathetic job is to relax and slow the body’s response. Using a car as an analogy, we may need the accelerator to get to where we need to go (sympathetic) quickly, but we also need to brake to slow the car down (parasympathetic).
Bring on the Parasympathetic!
Our sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that mobilizes us into action. It is “sympathetic” when our nervous system detects a threat, real or perceived, and will trigger a response. But what if there isn’t a real threat, and we do not need the mobilization of our protective mechanisms? This is when we need the opposite response to our sympathetic nervous system and recruit our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that calms us down. Phew!
Changes to the body happen very quickly when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Until the brain perceives that the “threat” has passed, it continues to do its job by releasing corticotropin (cortisol) and adrenocorticotropic (adrenaline) hormones that keep the body in the high alert state, so it is ready for intense physical activity. When the threat passes, the stress hormones decrease, and the parasympathetic nervous system jumps on board and slows the stress response. Our parasympathetic releases hormones, including acetylcholine and other endorphins that relax the mind and body while inhibiting, or slowing, many of the high energy functions of the body. The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
“By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.” — Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist
What and where is the Vagus Nerve, and what is Vagal Tone?
Our vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It connects our brain to many essential organs throughout our body, such as the gut (intestines, stomach), heart, and lungs. In Latin, “vagus” means “wanderer,” highlighting how this nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs. The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system influences our breathing, digestive function, and heart rate, which are essential for our mental health and wellness.
The “tone” of the vagus nerve is what we need to pay special attention to as it represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagal tone is evaluated by heart rate variability (HRV), a marker of the sympathovagal balance (stability of inputs from sympathetic and parasympathetic). If your nervous system is balanced, your heart is constantly being told to beat slower by your parasympathetic system and beat faster by your sympathetic system. This causes a fluctuation in your heart rate: HRV. Heart rate variability is a way to measure vagal tone. As you breathe in, your heart rate speeds up a little. As you breathe out, it slows down a little. The higher your vagal tone, the greater the difference between your inhalation heart rate and your exhalation heart rate, and the more efficient you are at relaxing. The goal is to have a higher vagal tone so that your body can relax faster after stress as it activates your parasympathetic nervous system. If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to respond to your brain's emotional and physiological symptoms and mental illness more effectively.
Higher vagal tone = Improved blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, improved digestion, reduced migraines, and increased emotional stability, resiliency, and longevity.
Lower vagal tone = mood instability, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, chronic inflammation, and cardiovascular disease.
The information from the vagus nerve is bidirectional, which means that the communication is from the brain down to the organs and the organs up to the brain. In fact, most of the traffic in the vagus nerve (80 percent of its messages) travels upstream from the body to the brain. This means that there are many activities that we can do to influence our brains!
Natural Ways to Activate Your Vagus Nerve
So, let's get going and stimulate that vagus nerve so we can reduce our neurophysiological experience of stress and increase our feeling of wellbeing! There are many techniques that a person can use to strengthen and activate their parasympathetic nervous system, causing a relaxation response in their body. Check these out:
Cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve by stimulating the dive reflex. Cold can also activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers have also found that exposure to cold can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve.
Splash cold water on your face
Take a cold shower
An ice pack against your face and middle of your forehead
Submerging your mouth and tongue with a cold beverage or ice
Go outside with lighter clothing
Slow, deep, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. A prolonged exhale with the use of straw is a great way to achieve this.
Valsalva Maneuver: Exhale against a closed airway by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. It increases the pressure inside your chest cavity, thereby stimulating your vagus nerve.
It is not just the quantity of sleep but also the quality of sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene.
Try to sleep on your right side. Research shows that since our vagus nerve runs down the right side of our neck, so sleeping on it can help activate it. Avoid sleeping on your back, as this makes it worse.
Exercise and other activities have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, explaining its beneficial brain and mental health effects. Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. The sort of exercise routine should be something you enjoy so that you can stick with it more consistently. Some examples are:
Yoga, chi kung, or tai chi
Spend time in nature.
Mild exercise stimulates gut flow and the vagus nerve.
Probiotics and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Research support that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. You can cultivate healthy intestinal bacteria by using probiotics. You can get probiotics in your system by eating yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, dark chocolate, natto, pickles, olives, raw cheese, kvass, and miso.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce themselves but are necessary for brain health. Research supports the finding that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity but lowering heart rate and increasing heart rate variability.
Think positive thoughts about yourself.
Think positive thoughts about other people.
Focus on a soothing word, such as "calm" or "peace".
Use Visualization: Picture yourself in a peaceful place that you love, such as a beach. Use all your senses as you visualize the place in this imagery. Hear the sounds of the waves, feel the breeze on your face, and smell the scent of the flowers.
Engage in repetitive prayer, or a positive mantra.
Singing, Humming, Chanting, and Gargling
Maybe that person who you hear humming and singing to themselves is on to something! It turns out that the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. You can activate your vagus nerve by activating those muscles by singing, humming, chanting, and even gargling!
Hum your favourite tune or making a “vooooooo” or “om” sound stimulates the vocal cords and facilitates long, slow exhalation.
Practice prosody, the act of speaking slowly, rhythmically, and melodically as if you’re soothing a young child or pet.
Massages, even gently massaging around the carotid sinus located on the sides of your neck, can stimulate the vagus nerve. Gently massage in an up and downward motion the right side of your throat.
Acupuncturists advocate massaging the skin behind your ear by placing your finger there and gently rubbing up and then down.
Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal inflection and heart rate variability. Time for that pedicure!
Get a massage by a qualified massage practitioner.
Engage in positive social relationships.
Laugh out loud! A full belly laugh stimulates the vagus nerve and is contagious!
Play with animals or children.
Do something you enjoy, such as a favourite hobby.
Touch your lips: your lips have parasympathetic fibers throughout them, so touch them by taking one or two fingers and lightly run them over your lips.
The good news is that you do not have to be in control of your body as it does incredible things on its own. However, you do have the power to influence your body on what to do. Stimulating your vagus nerve helps to remind your body that it is time to relax and de-stress. This ultimately leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing, and resilience.
Resources (of many out there)
- Mulkey SB, du Plessis AJ. Autonomic nervous system development and its impact on neuropsychiatric outcome. Pediatr Res. 2019 Jan;85(2):120-126. doi: 10.1038/s41390-018-0155-0. Epub 2018 Aug 30. PMID: 30166644; PMCID: PMC6353676.
- Porges SW. The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleve Clin J Med. 2009 Apr;76 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S86-90. doi: 10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17. PMID: 19376991; PMCID: PMC3108032.
- Porges S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 76 Suppl 2(Suppl 2), S86–S90. https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17
Polyvagal Institute https://www.polyvagalinstitute.org/
POLYVAGAL THEORY https://www.stephenporges.com/
The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen W Porges PhD
Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices by Deb Dana
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