The vagus nerve is akin to the braking system of an automobile. It helps our body get back to a state of rest and relax. However, during stressful times, our body’s natural homeostasis gets quickly overloaded – particularly now, during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has disrupted our safe and predictable world that we knew.
Without a doubt, we are all in a state of high alert. What will happen? How to protect my family? What about my job? Will food and necessities be available? Our minds and bodies are a cesspool of confusion and fear.
Alas, worrying and stressing does not help solve problems. Stress weakens our immune system. It makes us more susceptible to infection and other health problems. Furthermore. a chronic state of sympathetic fight-flight stress response state undermines the natural braking system of our parasympathetic – vagus nerve.
Leading to low vagal tone. The activity of the vagus nerve is referred to as vagal tone.
When our fight-flight sympathetic nervous system revs up to deal with a perceived threat, the vagus nerve initiates a relaxation response, by releasing acetylcholine which counteracts the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Low vagal tone means our vagus nerve has lost its ability to respond efficiently to counteract the stress-response of fight-flight.
The Vagus Nerve – Two-Way Information Highway
The tenth cranial nerve or vagus nerve is the body’s two-way information highway. Vagus in Latin means ‘wandering’ since it is the longest cranial nerve connecting the brain stem, neck, ears, and tongue to the heart and lungs, abdomen and down to the colon.
It has two branches- the Ventral Vagus Nerve (VNN) branch (also known as our Social Engagement System) and the Dorsal Vagus Nerve branch (DVN) which makes us go into freeze mode in the face of unbearable stress.
Now, the way to deal with life is to be able to keep our vagal brake system working in balance – manage the stress calmly but not shut down feeling hopeless.
The Importance of Healthy Vagal Tone
A healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase in heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing— long, slow exhale—is key to improving vagal tone, slowing the heart rate and blood pressure – especially when one is anxious.
A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. Furthermore, a low vagal tone is linked to inflammation, negative moods, gut issues, heart problems, and many other health conditions.
So how do you improve your vagal tone. There are two ways either top-down (using our mind to relax our vagus nerve) or bottom-up ( using our body to calm the vagus nerve).
Top-Down Method to Increase Vagal Tone
1) Loving social engagement
2) Mindfulness / meditation
3) Relaxing Sound Music
4) Guided Meditation
7) Watching feel-good movies
Bottoms- Up Method to Increase Vagal Tone
1) Deep Breathing
2) Laughter, singing/chanting
3) Eating psychobiotic foods
4) Physical activity like yoga, crawling, martial arts, Qigong, Tai Chi, a simple walk, jogging, swinging, playing
5) Painting, knitting or any activity that requires focus and hand-eye-coordination
6) Body massage, acupuncture, body massage, osteopathy, chiropractic manipulations, myofascial massage, osteopathic bodywork, craniosacral therapy, even a simple self-facial can be relaxing
Simple Ways To Hack Your Vagus Nerve – Blow on Your Thumb
My Own Micro-Moments Of Vagal Soothing
I believe in the power of music, sound healing music is a potent way to calm my anxious brain. Sitting under a cool shower effectively washes away the worry. Some crawling and a few body inversion exercises. Additionally, hugging my son and venting away totally soothes my fight-flight mental state.
Remember, the saying a stitch in time saves nine. Make time to focus on your mental and body states and find ways to soothe the vagus nerve. It’s all about making self-care a priority.
Nonetheless, by strengthening our vagal tone we can have a more robust immune system, a calm mind, and a healthier body.
It just takes mindful awareness about how we are feeling and incorporate micro-moments of vagal soothing in our daily routine.
Image Source: Pexels
Point B – Peter Bregman