You may have heard of the vagus nerve before as it’s becoming a bit more of a hot topic- for good reason!
The vagus nerve plays a significant role in our autonomic nervous system, and vagus nerve exercises can help us get out of the sympathetic nervous system’s role of keeping us on alert for danger for those moments where we do not need to be in that mode of stress.
The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system- which is the “rest and digest” process that our autonomic nervous system takes.
When we are in this process, our nervous system is communicating to us that we are safe and are allowed to be comfortable in this moment. When we stimulate the vagus nerve, we are helping ourselves get into a parasympathetic state- which is where we want to be much of the time. Being in this state more frequently supports our physical and mental health and well being.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our body- connecting our brain to many important organs throughout the body.
The vagus nerve runs from the brain, through the spinal cord, all the way down to the large intestines. Vagus nerve fibers connect to the lungs, heart, and digestive track. These fibers connect our central nervous system to our digestive and immune systems. As we see how integrated the vagus nerve is in so many areas of our body- it is no wonder why vagus nerve stimulation can be so important!
The vagus nerve plays a role in our digestive system, heart rate, breathing, and brain function- all functions that are impacted by states of stress. Because of this, vagus nerve exercises can be important for stress relief.
Are you working towards a lower blood pressure? Going through some particularly stressful events? Feel like your fight or flight response is getting triggered too often? Trying to find some healing from irritable bowel syndrome? Working through some treatment resistant depression or anxiety? Or, just wanting to see if all this vagus nerve stuff is worth the hype?
Vagus nerve exercises can be a nice practice to implement in your routine!
As a therapist, I’m often recommending exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve to my clients.
Whether someone is coming in to work on trauma, anxiety, or just to get through a difficult transition in life- working to regulate the nervous system is a great foundation for healing. Which is exactly why I am so passionate about vagus nerve stimulation- we can tap into some straight forward practices that stimulate the vagus nerve, thus helping us to feel grounded and regulated.
So, what are the specific benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve?
Top Benefits of Stimulating Your Vagus Nerve:
Help you relax from stress and anxiety
We live in a busy world. Juggling work, home life, relationships, and everything else important to us can leave us with anxiety and high stress levels. When we experience chronic stress, we may have a hard time being present in our lives, and may end up feeling heightened levels of anxiety even about the seemingly “small” stuff.
Having tools to de-stress on a regular basis will support our overall health and well being. When we are able to stimulate the vagus nerve so that we can shift out of the sympathetic nervous system and enter the parasympathetic nervous system, we are helping our body to handle stress, reduce anxiety, and be more grounded in the moment rather than feeling stuck in fight or flight mode.
By allowing the vagus nerve to be at the forefront of your mind when working to clue the body in on a sense of safety and security, you are giving yourself a chance to be more present in your life. Not only can this make it easier to connect to positive emotions in the moment, but it also can help you work towards long term healing and growth.
Find grounding in moments of overwhelm and overstimulation
Daily life can have us feeling overwhelmed and stressed by all of the stimulation around us. Your phone is ringing while you’re trying to answer that last work email while your kiddo is also asking when dinner will be ready. It’s a lot!
When we are feeling overstimulated, we sometimes need a moment to ground, get out of fight or flight mode, and connect to what is in the present moment. When we engage in vagus nerve stimulation, thus stimulating the parasympathetic response- we help our brain and body get out of fight or flight mode and give our brain some mental clarity so that we can focus on what truly needs our attention.
For those who may be more highly sensitive to overstimulation, working with the vagus nerve can be a game changer. This gives you a tool to utilize for busier moments or transitions in the day.
Physical Health Benefits
Stimulating our vagus nerve can have significant mental health benefits- and the benefits to your physical health are just as impactful!
When our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and we are in a stress response, we tend to have an increased heart rate, rapid breathing rate, and a halted digestive function. While it is important for these processes to occur when we are actually experiencing a threat as they will help us to escape the situation, these functions are not good for our body on a regular basis.
Folks who are regularly in the stress response cycle are not only more likely to struggle with their mental health, but also may be more likely to have high blood pressure, a decreased immune function, and digestive issues. By having a routine practice where we stimulate the vagus nerve, we strengthen our vagal tone, which allows us to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system more frequently.
When we are not in the sympathetic response as often, we have fewer stress hormones in our body, boost healthy blood flow (which helps decrease blood pressure and reduce inflammation), support our immune system, reduce our heart rate (as well as a reduced risk for heart disease), reduce our breathing rate, and can improve our overall health. You’ll probably also notice fewer tension headaches, feel less physical tension in the body, and overall improvement of your bodily functions. With all of these benefits, working on vagus nerve stimulation is a no brainer!
This benefit to my physical and mental well being sounds great. So, how do I strengthen my vagus nerve? What exercises stimulate the vagus nerve? Teach me more about vagus nerve stimulation!
Here are my top 3 vagus nerve exercises:
Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing exercises are great for vagus nerve stimulation! There are so many different slow breathing techniques we can practice, and I recommend just starting with whatever works best for you. It’s important to look at breath work as a practice- the more you work on it, the more impactful it can become.
These practices don’t have to be complicated. Let’s break down a few options of how we can connect with the breath to stimulate the vagus nerve.
This is a great one to start with if you are new to breath exercises. No need to have your breath be any specific length or duration, just to tune into your breath. Pause for a few moments to observe your breathing. Tune into where you feel your breath in your body, how long each breath feels comfortable for you, the flow of each inhale and exhale, and what it feelslike.
This tends to naturally deepen our breath, but no worries if not. Allow it to just be a moment to get acquainted with your breath in the present moment.
Paced breathing is a practice that allows us to even out our breath and breathe deeply. I recommend starting with a few mindful breaths and as it feels comfortable, allow the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale to be about the same.
Check in with your body and allow these breaths to feel as long as it feels comfortable for you. And if it feels okay, you can also let the length of your exhale be slightly longer than your inhale. When we slowly exhale, we can really help stimulate the vagus nerve.
Square or Box Breathing
Square or box breathing, is when we add in some pauses in between our inhales and exhales. Here, you can start off by getting to a comfortable even length of your inhales and exhales, and gradually adding in pauses in between. You can imagine each breath as a line of the square.
For example, you may inhale for a count of 4, pause for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 4, and pause for a count of 2. If it feels comfortable- all breaths and pauses can also be the same length. You don’t have to get to caught up with the counts if that feels complicated, rest assured that just by slowing down the breath you are stimulating the vagus nerve!
Cold Water Exposure
Cold water exposure is an excellent go-to practice for vagus nerve stimulation as well as anxiety and stress release. This can often have a quick stress release response as it slows down the bodily functions that are often elevated during moments of stress. Here, you can place an ice pack over the eyes and nose area of the face as you sit back and breathe for a few minutes.
You can also practice this by doing a full cold water face immersion by dunking your face into a bowl of cold water for as long as you can hold your breath, or by doing a full cold water immersion by sitting in a cold bath or plunging into a cold body of water. One of my favorite ways to practice this in my regular routine is to have a few minutes of cold water during my shower where I let the water run on my face and neck to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Please note that this should not be painful or dangerous- but just something that helps bring you to the moment and slows down your heart rate and breathing. Test out which form of cold exposure feels best for you as you are stimulating the vagus nerve.
Singing and/or Humming
When we sing or hum, we are causing a vibration of the vocal cords near the vagus nerve as it goes down our neck, and thus stimulates the vagus nerve. And as a bonus, this can bring us a little joy as we sing or hum our favorite tune!
So, hum along to the radio during your commute, or maybe to a two-for-one by practice of stimulating the vagus nerve by singing while you are doing some cold water immersion in the shower.
Vagus nerve exercises can play a vital role in regulating your nervous system.
Go and stimulate your vagus nerve! Try out these different vagus nerve practices even when you are not in a moment of stress to get comfortable with them. Over time you will learn which vagus nerve stimulation practices you enjoy best and strengthen your vagal tone, thus getting into that parasympathetic relaxation response more easily and more regularly.
It can take some time to get in the rhythm of it, but over time you are sure to see improvements in your physical health as well as mental well being. The vagus nerve is a fascinating tool that we can tap into to support ourselves!
About this author:
Hey, I’m Kayla Estenson Williams! I’m a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Minnesota. I run a small private practice, Minnesota Attachment Collective and I specialize in trauma as well as perinatal mental health. You can check out some of my self-paced online offerings here.
It’s an honor to get to do a guest blog post submission for Arielle Pinkston at That’s So Well! She is such a great resource for holistic health, and I know a fellow lover of the vagus nerve!