Should You Be Toning Your Vagus Nerve? Here's How It Can Calm Anxiety & Aid Digestion

Photo: Jessica Sharmin

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, extending from your brain stem to your abdomen. The vagus nerve connects to multiple organs such as your heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, fertility organs, and pancreas. It also affects your neck, ears, and tongue. Your vagus nerve has a direct impact on your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps put your body at ease so you can properly digest not only your food but also your emotions. When your vagus nerve is not being stimulated, it is referred to as "being low." On the other hand, low vagal tone can contribute to multiple disorders, such as anxiety, intestinal problems, depression, and eating disorders.

When you stimulate your vagus nerve, the relationship between your brain and body strengthens. One way to stimulate it is by increasing your blood flow. As the blood flow through your brain, organs, and gut increases, your body will learn to relax, soften, and fully digest its emotions. Activities like exercise, chanting aloud, prayer or meditation, deep diaphragmatic breathing, laughter, and cold-water face splashes help stimulate the vagus nerve and calm your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system.

I suggest practicing these exercise on a daily basis and incorporating them into your self-care routine. You can also implement them during times of stress or when you notice that your breathing is shallow.

Here are my five go-to ways for reactivating my vagus nerve:

1. Reset the vagus nerve

Each morning I sit in my chair, take a couple of sips of coffee, and begin Step 1—clearing reactivity—by resetting my vagus nerve using the following sequence to help loosen up and release tension all around.

  1. Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand above your navel, and press to the right and inward.
  2. Take these same two fingers and press in above your navel and then again to the left. Then press in to the right, middle, and left (about an inch above the navel).
  3. With the other hand, simultaneously push the pads of three fingers into your scalp on top of your head (at the back), then press your fingers to the middle of your scalp (on top of your head), and then to the front (just above the forehead).
  4. Do the process simultaneously with one hand pressing points just above the navel and the other hand pressing the top of your head. Repeat three times, bring your arms down to your sides at the end, close your eyes, and breathe.

You should notice your breath become deeper, your jaw release, your neck feel looser, and your shoulders shift away from your ears. If you don’t notice anything, try again.

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2. Fear tap

The technique called "the fear tap" calms the fight-or-flight response, reduces irrational fear, and steadies your mind. First, you flip one of your hands over so the palm is facing down. With your other hand, take your fingers and press on the back side of your hand, halfway between your wrist and fingers, between your ring finger and pinkie finger. Tap this area with two or three fingers for 30 to 60 seconds, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

3. Cat/cow stretch

The cat/cow stretch is something I do often. It is a yoga asana that is one of the most refreshing ways to stimulate your vagus nerve. Here is a seated version. Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet about hip-width apart. Place your hands on your thighs, and as you exhale, round your spine like a scared cat, tucking your chin in toward your chest. Then inhale, open your spine, and draw your heart forward while you bring your shoulder blades back. Inhale (open your heart) and exhale (squeeze your core, rounding forward). Allow your breathing to create more flexibility in your spine.

4. Hands to forehead

Another way to reduce reactivity is by rubbing your hands together vigorously for about 10 seconds and then placing one palm on your forehead and the other hand on top of the hand already on your forehead. It will look like you are checking your head for a fever. By placing your hands in this position, closing your eyes for 30 seconds, and breathing into your lower belly, you are pulling the blood up to the forebrain. As this occurs, reactivity reduces. You’ll know this because once you take your hands away (placing them palm down on your lap), your breathing will come from your lower abdomen.

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5. Body scan

Once you acknowledge your level of reactivity, do one more quick whole-body scan. Keep your eyes closed or softly open, begin at the top of your head, and move all the way to the bottom of your feet. Scanning your body is like preheating your oven. Your oven needs to be a certain temperature to cook your food properly inside and out; likewise, your body needs to be a certain way—i.e., cleared of reactivity—in order to assimilate your whole emotions.

Clearing reactivity is best done in the morning because when you sleep your body is digesting the stressors of the day. Take 10 seconds out of your morning to do the following scan:

  1. Sit or stand up straight with your arms down by your sides and your feet parallel on the floor.
  2. Inhale.
  3. On the exhale, using your awareness, slowly trace from the top of your head to the soles of your feet.

Based on excerpts from Emotional Detox: 7 Steps to Release Toxicity and Energize Joy by Sherianna Boyle, Med, CAGS. Copyright © 2018, Adams Media, a division of Simon and Schuster. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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