8 Ways To Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve For Emotional Intelligence
A pounding heart. Shallow, quick breathing. Tense muscles. Sweat.
A stressful situation—whether something environmental, such as a natural disaster, or psychological, such as persistent worry about money—can trigger stress hormones that inspire the body to react.
But reaching from your brain down to your gut is a powerful and ‘wandering’ nerve that can help you respond to and recover quicker from life’s crises.
Have you ever heard about the little-known nerve that can drastically improve your way of life?
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What Is The Vagus Nerve?
In your body exists a very special nerve that controls your emotions, health, happiness and hormones. Scientists and doctors are now getting more and more interested in this secret nerve, because it can treat physical illnesses and help manage stress, tension, cancer, reduce depression and cognitive disorders.
As the primary communicator between the brain, heart and digestive organs, the vagus nerve runs from your brainstem all the way down into your intestines, sending signals between your brain and your gut in order for the brain to be aware of how you’re feeling and doing. The word vagus means “wanderer,” which perfectly illustrates how this nerve travels all over the body to various organs: the brain, ears, heart, lungs, tongue, esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter and female fertility organs.
In many ways, the vagus nerve is the air traffic controller of our body—sending and receiving messages from the brain about when to digest, when to breathe, and what to feel, making it a key player in building emotional resilience.
“Visceral feelings and gut instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve. In previous studies, signals from the vagus nerve traveling from the gut to the brain have been linked to modulating mood and distinctive types of fear and anxiety. As with any mind-body feedback loop, messages also travel “downstream” from your conscious mind through the vagus nerve signaling your organs to create an inner-calm so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety, or to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight” in dangerous situations.”
—Christopher Berglund for Psychology Today
When stimulated, the vagus nerve stops the body’s stress response and helps you to rest and recover. It also keeps your immune system in check and releases relaxing hormones and enzymes such as oxytocin. This results in reductions in inflammation, improvements in memory, relief of depression and anxiety, improvement of sleep, and reduction of stress.
How To Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve
The good news is that the vagus nerve can be stimulated and strengthened through lifestyle and practice to initiate deep relaxation, improve sleep, recover from injuries and traumas, and bring the body into the state of safety that activates its innate capacity to heal.
Here are a few practices that have been shown to increase vagal function.
1. Deep & Slow Breathing
Breathing is one of the fastest and easiest ways to activate the vagus nerve. Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute, but it has been found that taking 6 breaths from the diaphragm over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress.
1. Inhale deeply from the belly very slowly through your nose for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
2. Exhale very slowly through your nose or mouth for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5. Your exhale should be long and slow.
3. Wait for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
4. Set a timer and breathe this way for at least five minutes! You should see a difference in your mood.
2. Cold Showers
Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve.
Finish your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time. You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice-cold water.
Research has shown that yoga improves symptoms of a variety of conditions, providing relief from depression and anxiety, diabetes, chronic pain, and even epilepsy. It’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects.
4. Fermented Foods & Probiotics
The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain, sending signals in both directions. It is now understood that the vagus nerve is the primary route your gut bacteria use to transmit information to your brain. Thus, the brain depends on the gut for vital information about how we’re feeling.
There are many foods we can use to improve the connection between our gut and our brain. Fermented foods, probiotics, and prebiotics all play a role in supporting our gut-brain connection. Probiotics are good bacteria for the gut and stem from a fermentation process that allows good bacteria to thrive.
Fortunately, research has also uncovered that one of the benefits of fermented foods are their ability to influence brain activity. One month-long study into healthy women who consumed fermented milk products showed heightened activity in the parts of the brain that control emotion and sensation.
Try this: How To Make Sauerkraut
Meditation is now a common relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase relaxation. Research shows that meditation increases vagal function and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Many studies have also found that it reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity.
Body Scan Meditation
With your eyes closed, start at the top of your head and mentally “scan” down your body. Bring your awareness to your head and neck, and notice if you feel any feelings, sensations, or discomfort. Does that area feel relaxed or tense? Comfortable or uncomfortable? Energetic or tired? Repeat this practice for your shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, hips, legs, feet, and so on — taking about 20-30 seconds to focus on each body part.
When you encounter areas of tension during the scan, don’t struggle. Instead, focus your attention on them and breathe. Try to visualize the tension leaving your body. Take note of your observations and when thoughts or feelings arise, return to the area of the body where you last left off. Don’t try to change anything — you are simply building a picture of how the body feels right now, in the moment.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system. Research has also shown that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal stimulation and activity.
Try this: 12 Foods That Are Very High In Omega-3s
7. Singing, Humming, Chanting
Research shows that the vagus nerve can be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures.
Try this: Myofascial Self-Massage