Vagus Nerve And Anxiety: 10 Ways To Calm Down The Vagus

SuperMoon 2016, Ramona, California, by Linda Schafer

You can stimulate the vagus to help you relax and calm down in ways you might have never imagined. It is a highly interesting and useful read. Dive in.

Vagus And Anxiety: Vagus Nerve Stimulation To Calm Down

The Vagus nerve, the longest of our cranial nerves, runs from the brain to the womb. Among its many functions, it signals the lungs to breathe. We can stimulate the vagus to calm down anxiety.

A common name for the vagus nerve is the “wandering nerve.” So called because it finds its way from the head down to the gut and uterus, wandering like a vagabond. The vagus relaxes all the organs it visits on its path.

Now, look at that picture above — Supermoon of November 13, 2016, at Ramona, California, by Linda Schafer. And spend a few unbroken seconds gazing at it; you will most likely feel more relaxed.

While looking at the soft, large moon rising from the horizon, the trees in silhouette, and the distant line of mountains against a scarlet sky, you might have unconsciously taken a slow, deep breath.

If you have not, and if you are not feeling too self-conscious, take a slow, deep breath. Try it now: one slow, deep breath.

And once you do that, you notice it relaxes you almost instantly. 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 on cue.

A SuperMoon occurs when the moon is in its nearest orbit to earth, and the earth, the moon, and the sun line up, with the moon on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. The astronomers call it the Perigee Moon. A Perigee Moon can be around 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a full moon at its farthest from the earth.

How the vagus nerve can calm us down from a state of anxiety?

The stimulated vagus releases an bunch of anti-anxiety chemicals in our body:

  • acetylcholine
  • vasopressin
  • prolactin
  • oxytocin

While the other three are hormones, acetylcholine (ACh) in that list is a neurotransmitter — a chemical messenger that carries a message from a nerve cell to a target cell across a nerve junction. The ACh calms us down.

ACh relaxes the smooth muscles in the walls of our arteries, which dilates those arteries, and brings down our heart rate. ACh also helps and controls our long-term and short-term memories. Brain scientists think it might help in the formation, consolidation, and retrieval of our memories.

We can indirectly stimulate the vagus to release acetylcholine into our body. We do not need to carry out a thing as drastic as surgery to do so. That was something the German-born psychobiologist Otto Loewi did in his original experiment (we talk about the fascinating story later in this article).

Christopher Bergland, a world-class endurance athlete and author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss writes:

The vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure.

10 Ways The Vagus Nerve Can Calm Down Anxiety

When stressed and anxious, you could stimulate your vagus nerve to relax, without drugs or devices.

Here are 10 simple ways you can stimulate your “wandering nerve” to bring down your heart rates and start your body’s relaxation response:

10 Simple Ways To Relax Via The Vagus

  1. Deep and slow breathing — the belly breathing or the diaphragmatic breathing (we explain how to do it in the Final Words section)
  2. Holding breath for a few seconds, or breathing out strongly through your mouth while holding the nose tightly closed — the Valsalva maneuver
  3. Splashing your face with chilled water
  4. Coughing and gargling
  5. Tensing the tummy muscles as if bearing down to evacuate the bowel
  6. Massaging the sides of your necks — the carotid sinus massage
  7. Pressing the eyeballs
  8. A hearty, ‘mirthful’ bout of laughter
  9. Meditation, especially the loving-kindness meditation
  10. Exercise and yoga

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)

The vagus nerve can be stimulated by:

  • surgical therapy
  • chemical method
  • carotid sinus massage
  • electric stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is used as 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:

Certain drugs can also stimulate the vagus. That is chemical VNS.

Watch the video to understand how is carotid sinus massage done:

Carotid Sinus Massage
Carotid Sinus Massage: Vagus Nerve Stimulation

The neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey discovered inflammation of rheumatic arthritis can be reduced by stimulating the vagus nerve by electricity.

Loewi, Vagus, And Frog 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 heartbeats.

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.

If we cut the nerve connection between the vagus and heart, our hearts would start racing at crazy speeds. Even if we were merely catching a breeze on a hammock, our hearts would beat 100 times every minute. And any heart that beats that fast all through the day 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.

Now, read on how a scientist had dreams about frogs slowing down their heartbeats when he electrified their vagus nerves.

In 1921, the pharmacologist and psychobiologist Otto Loewi woke up in the middle of the night to conduct an experiment, of which he had a dream.

He cut out two beating hearts from frogs and soaked them in two jars with saline solutions. One of these hearts had the vagus still attached. He stimulated it with electricity. The frog-heart slowed down. He then took away the saline from that slow-beating heart and put it into the jar containing the second heart. To his surprise, the heart in the second jar slowed down too.

He guessed it was because of a chemical released by the first heart into the solution. He later found it was the stimulated vagus that releases a chemical to slow down the heart.

He called it “Vagusstoff.” Later, scientists renamed it Acetylcholine (ACh). For discovering the first neurotransmitter, Loewi received the 1936 Nobel Prize.

Other Functions of The Vagus

  1. Memories: Recent research hints us vagus nerve stimulation could help in strengthening our memories. This could open up a world of possibility in Alzheimer’s patients.
  2. Inflammation: The role of the vagus in keeping down the inflammation in our body is also a promising direction of research.
  3. Resilience: Further, those with a 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: We can overstimulate and it would make us faint. Called “vagal syncope,” it happens because of a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate, which cuts blood flow to the brain.

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 at the base of our brain, travels into the neck, then further through the chest and down to the 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 the heartbeat, 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 earwax.

The Vagus Nerve (Picture courtesy: Encyclopedia-Britannica)

Women who have had complete spinal cord injury have reportedly experienced orgasms via the vagus nerve.

Final Words

Vagus nerve stimulation via belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is a practical method of relaxing yourself on short notice.

Here below is how to do the diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Lie down on the 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 on the belly, just below the rib cage.
  • Breathe in slowly through the nose, letting the air in deeply towards the lower belly. The hand on the chest should remain still, while the other hand on the belly should rise.
  • Tighten the abdominal muscles and let them cave in as you breathe out through your 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. Normally, it is 18 to 20 per minute.

Regular diaphragmatic breathing for at least 10 minutes a day can help you become calmer and stay unruffled, 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: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.

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