The vagus nerve is often overlooked as a potential means of lowering anxiety and stress. We have all heard that taking a walk or exercising is a great way to relieve feelings of worry or tension. We probably have experienced the positive results of taking a stroll near the ocean, enjoying the sights that only nature can provide. Such an activity promotes peace and well-being for many reasons, and one I would like to explore here is vagal nerve stimulation.
A look at the nervous system reveals just how amazing the human body is. It truly is a miracle in action. The nervous system relays information from the brain to the body and back again. One of the most important bidirectional nerves is the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the body. The word “vagus” comes from the Latin word “vaga” which means “to wander”. This nerve originates from the brain and wanders around the body affecting many major organs. It is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It controls involuntary processes such as heart rate, digestion, circulation, and breathing to name a few. Most of us have never even heard of this important nerve, much less how to stimulate it for our own mental and physical health benefit.
The sympathetic nervous system helps us respond to stressful situations by stimulating the “fight or flight” response. As a result of this response, our heart rates increase, blood pressure increases, and we may feel knots in our stomach. This response can be helpful if we are in real danger and we need to flee the situation immediately. Usually, however, we are not in actual physical danger and the prolonged stress response can be physically and mentally taxing.
Increasing vagal tone helps the parasympathetic nervous system recover after a stressful event, which provokes the “fight or flight” response in the body. It can help the body relax and return to a state of peace.
Regular exercise, such as walking, running, yoga, and weight lifting, contributes to healthy vagal tone. Other methods to stimulate the relaxation response are deep slow breathing, singing or chanting, gargling, laughing and socializing, massage, meditation, Omega-3 fatty acid intake (found in fish), probiotics, and exposure to cold. Group drumming is also a great activity that supports vagal tone.
When your vagal tone is high you can experience more positive emotions, greater heart rate variability, lower blood pressure, better digestion and clearer thinking. This can help you achieve better health overall.
So get outside for a walk. Drum, sing, hum and chant. What happens in the vagus, doesn’t stay in the vagus. And that, my friends, is a very good thing!