Vegas or Vagus
Updated: Aug 24
By Paula Present
We all know Vegas, but what about the vagus nerve? It is the 10th out of 12 cranial nerves. Vagus, vagabond, named for its wandering nature in its function and location in the body. It is the longest of all cranial nerves and has a big parasympathetic function. We have 2 components of the nervous system. Sympathetic is our fight or flight system, necessary to engage for survival. It is also called the accelerator of the body. “Sym Pathos” means it functions “with emotions”. Parasympathetic (“against emotions”) is the rest and digest system that brings the body recuperation, relaxation, and restoration. It is like the brake of the body. Your body works best when both systems are in balance, but it is possible to be stuck in sympathetic mode when overly stressed out. The vagus nerve has a parasympathetic function that we can stimulate to help balance the body from stress. It also has sensory and motor connections to all organs, including heart and gut. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health. One of the top activities we do to stimulate the vagus nerve is social engagement. During this time of social distancing and quarantine, we are not able to participate in social activities. The vagus nerve can lose tone (activity) and create anxiety, inflammation, and depression. The purpose of this post is to help you stimulate tone in the nerve to uplift yourself and your body during this time. This nerve is very complicated with 3 different divisions. The polyvagal theory was created by Dr Stephen Porges. You can explore an introduction to that theory HERE if you want a more in depth look at the vagus nerve. This theory has provided us with a more sophisticated biology of safety and danger based on visceral experiences of our own bodies as well as the faces of people around us. This theory puts social relationships front and center in our understanding of trauma, as well as new approaches for healing through regulation.
What can you do to stimulate your vagus nerve?
Singing, humming, or chanting Since the nerve runs through resonating centers in our skull, the vibrations from singing and chanting can help. They both tend to slow the breath down. The act of producing the sound makes the breath go out slower. So sing in the shower, car, with your family, partner, or a solo. You don’t have to be Celine Dion! It brings immense joy, partly because of the stimulation of the vagus nerve. If you don’t like to sing, I don’t understand BUT This video is some humming sounds you can make for stimulation. The sounds in this video are similar to the sounds created in the “om” chant in yoga, which is why “om” and humming have a relaxation effect.
Meditation There are so many kinds, and you may already have one that works for you. It’s an individual experience from within. If you want something guided, Headspace is an app on your phone that has waived its fees for the rest of the year. Working on slowing down the breath not only helps us into that parasympathetic state, but also trains the body to be able to get back to that parasympathetic state if sympathetic, or fight and flight nervous system is overstimulated.
Breathing This is also a part of the first two, but with just a bit more information. We breathe about 10-14 breaths per minute. To relax the body, ideally, we want to work it down to 6 breaths per minute using a long slow exhale. The exhale stimulates the tone of the nerve. This is a process and practice and might not happen right away. If you want to start this practice, start slowly, don’t force the end goal, and listen to your body. You can try to inhale for 5 counts, hold 2, exhale for 8 counts to empty. Inhale again when you feel the need without any discomfort and stress, and repeat. Breathe through your nose for more benefits. Try it for 3 cycles and see how you feel after that.
Cold exposure You know how good it feels to splash your face with cold water? This is because it stimulates vagus as well. You can even finish a shower with a 30 second cold blast as well!
Exercise Well this is a no brainer! Getting exercise is good for mental health overall. Although we can’t physically go to classes, there are lots of options like walking,or zoom/FaceTime sessions with your favorite WCP trainer, or so many streaming services you can do in your home. Most of all, it’s important you enjoy it and stick with it!
Massage Since that is not possible right now, here are some self massage techniques you can do on your own. SCM or sternocleidomastoid, is a muscle in your neck that the nerve fibers run through. If you turn your head to the right, feel the muscle sticking out on the left. It runs from your skull inwards towards the clavicle. Once you find it, soften the neck back to center and pinch along the muscle gently a couple times, then find the other side. The vagus nerve runs deep into the abdominal region as well. For more in depth massage, including abdominal self massage, I have included this video.
In conclusion, there are many ways to help ourselves during this time, which can take a couple of minutes of your time to elevate your state. Not knowing what is going to happen is a big stress on all of us. We can all benefit from these techniques of self care, including stimulating our vagus nerve to relax our bodies so rest, restoration, and healing can occur.