NB: This post was originally published in September 2019 and updated for April 2023
In 2019, as part of my ongoing therapy, I attended a weekly compassion group where I met up with like-minded individuals to consider different aspects of wellbeing and a variety of techniques for improved mental health. For one of the sessions, we spent time learning about the vagus nerve and its impact on overall health. I must admit, I hadn’t previously heard of this important bundle of fibres so I was really interested to find out as much as I could (I love every opportunity to learn something new). So, in today’s post, I’ll look at what the vagus nerve is, what it does and ways in which you can stimulate it to support good mental health.
Introducing the vagus nerve (a.k.a. the tenth cranial nerve)
The vagus nerve is the longest of our cranial nerves (the ones which emerge straight from our brain) and controls our inner nerve centre. It oversees a range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to each organ of our body – namely our heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen. The vagus nerve is critical to our overall health and it has been scientifically proven that stimulating this important bundle of motor and sensory fibres is key to reducing our stress, anxiety and anger levels.
So, enough of the science lesson, what are the practical ways that we can get this thing working to our advantage?
breathe deeply and slowly
Slow and deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve in a way that can help reduce our heart rate and enable us to become more relaxed. That’s why focusing on your breath during mini meditations can be so soothing for us and is a key part of compassion based therapy. You can find out more about different types of breathing in this useful post from verywellmind, especially the diaphragmatic style which is also known as deep breathing.
Regular exercise such as a gentle walk or some simple stretches stimulates gut flow which is regulated by your vagus nerve. Why not combine your walk with getting in touch with nature so you can stimulate all of your senses and enjoy some peace and quiet at the same time?
have a good laugh
There’s a reason behind the popular saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Proper belly laughs are thought to be great for stimulating the vagus nerve. Why not try going to a comedy show, playing some humourous videos on YouTube or TikTok (haven’t ventured onto TikTok myself but I’m pretty sure there’s some funny content on there!) or watching an episode of your favourite funny TV series tonight? There’s even a thing called ‘laughter therapy’ according to a counsellor I used to see, although I’ve never tried it myself!
try getting yourself all cold!
Apparently any type of exposure to cold will increase vagus nerve activation. That’s why some people swear by having a cold shower first thing in the morning to get going! Personally I prefer a little cold water on my face or a nice cold glass of water to wake myself up but it’s entirely up to you how you expose yourself to a little bit of coldness!
Sing or chant
As a member of a choir, I love singing and find it really helps my wellbeing. Now I know why! Why not trying putting on your favourite music and singing along (and maybe do a little boogie as well for the exercise) to activate your vagus nerve? Chanting also works too so no wonder football fans feel so good when they shout for their team at matches.
A nice neck massage is a lovely way to stimulate the vagus nerve or why not try a foot massage to help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. I love it when my husband does a firm massage of my feet after a long day when we’re sat together watching TV. If you haven’t got an obliging partner, a session with a qualified masseuse makes a fantastic pampering treat if you can afford it.
Positive social contact
Being socially connected, be it with compassionate friends, family or even our beloved pets has been shown to help with emotional regulation though vagal stimulation. Make sure that you choose to spend time with kind hearted and thoughtful people to ensure a positive experience.
Reduce your consumption of junk food
I’m sure you already know that eating too much fatty stuff is bad for you but excess consumption of ‘junk food’ has been shown to reduce the sensitivity of your vagus nerve. The occasional treat is okay but try not to indulge too often.
Yoga and Tai Chi
The benefits of practises such as yoga and Tai Chi are well documented. They have both been shown to increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic (also known as rest and digest) system in general. You can find many simple yoga sequences online and beginner classes of exercises are widely available if you want to make it a social event too.
And finally, try to make time to relax each and every day
It’s up to you what form that relaxation takes, a nice warm bath, a few uninterrupted chapters of your favourite novel, craft or art activities or settling down to watch a film. Find something relaxing to do each day will have a positive effect on your wellbeing by working your vagus nerve.
I hope you’ve found today’s post interesting and have learnt something new. Let me know if you try any of the ideas and if they have a positive effect on your wellbeing as a result. I learnt so much during my compassion group therapy and I’m continuing to work hard to put things into practice to improve my wellbeing. Updating this has encouraged me to look back over the handouts we received to remind myself of the various ideas and techniques from the ten week course.
Until next time, look after yourself.