Vagus Nerve Stimulation To Calm Down Anxiety
The vagus can be stimulated to help you relax and calm down in ways you may have never imagined. It’s a fascinating story. Read on.
Vagus nerve, the longest of our cranial nerves, runs from brain to womb. Among its many functions, it signals the lungs to breathe. The vagus can be stimulated to calm down anxiety.
The vagus nerve is also called the “wandering nerve” because it wanders like a vagabond. It is a nerve that finds its way from the head down to the gut and uterus, relaxing all the organs it visits on its path.
Now, look at that picture above — Supermoon 2016. Just spend a few unbroken seconds gazing at it, and you’ll most likely feel more relaxed.
While looking at the soft, red moon, the tree, and the flying birds against a blue grey sky, you might have unconsciously taken a slow, deep breath.
If you’ve not, and if you’re not feeling too self-conscious, do take a slow, deep breath. Try it now; just one slow, deep breath.
And once you do that, you’d notice it relaxes you almost on cue. Because slow, deep breathing has always done so. We are born with this ability. It’s by a body process called vagus nerve stimulation.
We can calm down our anxiety by simply deep-breathing or breath-holding, because these acts stimulate our vagus nerve.
Vagus Nerve: The Wandering Nerve
The vagus, or the “wandering nerve,” is the longest autonomic nerve in the human body. It travels a long way, as if wandering on through the body.
It starts out at the base of our brain, travels into the neck, then further through the chest and down to large gut in the abdomen. In women, it reaches as low in the abdomen as the cervix of the uterus.
The credit of that deep breathing induced relaxation goes to our body’s “wandering nerve.” Scientists call it the vagus nerve , and they call its activation vagus nerve stimulation. Actually, there is one vagus nerve on each side of our body.
The vagus, as a part of your autonomic nervous system, controls those functions of the body that are not under your voluntary control, such as the heart rate.
Other than heart beat, it also controls our gut movements and sweating. It commands the release of tears, saliva, and stomach acid, too. It causes us to gag when something touches the back of our throat, and to cough when a cotton bud tries to clear out a plug of ear wax.
Women who have had complete spinal cord injury are known to experience orgasms via the vagus nerve.
Vagus Nerve And Heart
How important is the vagus nerve to our hearts?
Be Still My Beating Heart: Our hearts have a built-in pacemaker, the natural pacemaker of the heart, called the sinoatrial node (SAN). It regulates our heart beats.
In turn, the vagus controls this pacemaker of our heart. The wandering nerve asks the SAN to instruct the heart to maintain its beat at a certain rate.
Suppose the vagus were cut, then our hearts would start racing at around 100 beats every minute, even if we were just catching a breeze on a hammock. And any heart that is always beating that fast can wear out our organs, and ourselves, rather too soon. So, having an intact vagus that is always alert keeps our resting heart rate controlled, between 60 to 80 per minute.
When we actively stimulate the vagus, as we did by letting in a deep breath watching that Supermoon above, our hearts go into relaxation.
Read on for how a scientist in 1921 had dreams about frogs slowing down their heartbeats when he stimulated their vagus nerves.
We learned this back in 1921, when the German-born psychobiologist Otto Loewi showed that stimulating the vagus nerve can make frog hearts beat slower. For this, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, albeit a little late, in 1934.
In his interesting midnight experiment, of which he had a dream, Loewi removed two beating frog hearts and soaked them in separate saline solutions. He stimulated the vagus nerve in one of these hearts. It slowed that heart down.
He then took away the saline from that slow-beating heart and put it to the second heart. This caused the second heart to slow down too. This proved that a stimulated vagus releases a chemical was released that slowed heart rates.
Vagus Nerve And Anxiety
How important is the vagus nerve for calming down anxiety?
The stimulated vagus releases an bunch of anti-anxiety chemicals in our body:
- vasopressin, and
Of these, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine brings down our heart rate.
The vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure.
Other Functions of The Vagus
1. Memories: A recent research hints vagus nerve stimulation could help in strengthening of our memories. This could open up a world of possibility in Alzheimer’s patients.
2. Inflammation: The role of vagus in keeping down the inflammation in our body is also a promising direction of research.
3. Resilience: Further, those with stronger vagal response, that is those who get more affected by vagus nerve stimulation, might recover better after a stressful event (resilience).
4. Addiction: A January 2017 study shows that vagus nerve stimulation therapy can help people overcome drug addiction by helping them learn new behaviors to replace those associated with seeking drugs.
5. Vagus And Fainting: The vagus nerve can be overstimulated to make us faint. This is called “vagal syncope” and it happens due to sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate causing restriction of blood flow to brain.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
The vagus nerve can be stimulated by:
- surgical therapy
- chemical method
- carotid sinus massage
- electric stimulation
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a surgical therapy for uncontrolled seizures, given by transmitting mild electrical pulses to the brain via the vagus nerve.
In surgical VNS, surgeons implant a device called vagus nerve stimulator under the chest skin to bring about vagus nerve stimulation, which involves sending a mild electric pulse through the vagus nerve.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved this device as a treatment option for use in those who have:
- medically uncontrollable seizures, and
- hard-to-treat depression.
Certain drugs can also stimulate the vagus. This is chemical VNS.
Watch the video to understand how is carotid sinus massage done:
The neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey discovered that inflammation of rheumatic arthritis can be reduced by stimulating the vagus nerve by electricity.
10 Ways The Vagus Nerve Can Calm Down Anxiety
When you’re stressed and anxious, you could stimulate your vagus nerve to relax yourself.
Without drugs or device.
Indeed, there are a few indirect maneuvers that can stimulate the vagus, but are not a drastic as implantation surgery, or what Loewi did in his original experiment — cutting out the beating hearts of the frogs.
Here are 10 simple ways you can stimulate your “wandering nerve” to bring down your heart rates and initiate your body’s relaxation response:
10 Ways To Relax Via Vagus
- Deep and slow breathing — the belly breathing
- Holding breath for a few seconds
- Splashing your face with chilled water
- Coughing and gargling
- Tensing the tummy muscles as if bearing down to evacuate the bowel
- Massaging the sides of your necks — the carotid sinus massage
- Pressing the eyeballs
- A hearty, ‘mirthful’ bout of laughter
- Meditation, especially the loving-kindness meditation
- Exercise and yoga
Vagus nerve stimulation via belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is a very practical method of relaxing yourself on short notice.
Here below is how to do the deep, diaphragmatic breathing:
- Lie down on back on a flat surface with knees bent. If uncomfortable, use a pillow under your head and your knees for support.
- Place one hand on the upper chest and the other one on the belly, just below the rib cage.
- Breathe in slowly through nose, letting the air in deeply, towards the lower belly. The hand on chest should remain still, while the hand on the belly should rise.
- Tighten the abdominal muscles and let them fall in while breathing out through pursed lips. With this, the hand on the belly should move down to its original position.
- Try to get your breathing rate down to 5 to 7 per minute.
Doing the diaphragmatic breathing for at least 10 minutes a day on a regular basis can help you become calmer, and bring about a lasting positive change in your anxiety levels.
Now that you know, why not start this good thing today?
[An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Medium, written by the same author.]
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.
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