Your Vagus Nerve May Be Key To Fighting Anxiety and Stress

Your Vagus Nerve May Be Key To Fighting Anxiety and Stress

Juan Esterhuizen Transformation Psychologist & Life Coach

Your Vagus Nerve May Be Key To Fighting Anxiety and Stress

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve forms part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It carries electrical signals between the brain and the body. Its main role is to control automated functions necessary for survival of the organism, such as breathing, heart rate and digestion. That makes it an important connection between your mind and body. Your vagus nerve also plays a role in disengaging your sympathetic nervous system - your fight-or-flight response.  

When you are scared or stressed, your heart rate and blood pressure increase and you become focused on survival. So if you are a person who gets stressed easily, being in that stressful ‘fight-or-flight’ state can wear out your body and when stress becomes chronic it will take its toll on your body and manifest as disease. 

Your fight-or-flight response is very important when you are actually in some kind of physical danger. When it however jumps into gear in situations that are not a matter of life or death, it taxes your body and your mind and you chronically operate in a stress mode.

The parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve play an important role in returning you to a stable state when the stressful situation is no longer present. Activating your vagus nerve and the rest of your parasympathetic nervous system is a cue to your body that there is no mortal danger and allows you to calm down and relax. 

What is the connection between your vagus nerve and anxiety? 

During a state of danger, stress or excitement, your sympathetic nervous system starts ringing alarm bells that something is wrong and you need to prepare for battle. These messages put your brain and body into survival mode, priming you to react quickly. Once the threat has however passed, your brain sends signals via the vagus nerve to help the body relax and to release the tension and stress associated with the fight or flight mode. The body then returns to a state of equilibrium.  

The problem is that the fight-or-flight response cannot distinguish between immediate danger and life stresses that come our way every day.  

Imagine this scenario: You are living in early times and spot a sabre tooth tiger in the woods that is about to pounce. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and you prepare to (somehow) fight off the tiger. Then, the tiger wanders off. The danger has passed and your body downshifts from the stress of almost being eaten. That is what the sympathetic nervous system is for. To prepare us to fight for our lives or find a way to flee from danger.) 

In the times we live in today, most of the threats we face in life are not tiger-shaped. Today, your fight-or-flight reaction is most likely not activated so much by facing dangerous situations but rather more likely by emotionally charged threats, like: 

•    Abuse
•    Discrimination
•    Dysfunctional relationships
•    Loneliness
•    Poverty
•    Poor sleep
•    Trauma

Unlike the tiger who sneaked back into the jungle and left you to go back to your daily activities, these emotional triggers have become part of our daily lived experiences. They stay with us day in and day out and so do the stress and anxiety that are created by them courtesy of our fight-or-flight response.  

If your parasympathetic nervous system does not stabilize and calm you, you may be living in a constant state of anxiety and in time the situation will become self-perpetuating.  If this is the case you will be at higher risk of health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.  

This is where the vagus nerve comes into play. A healthy vagus nerve can rapidly offset your body’s stress response. It can help reduce anxiety and improve your overall health if you know how to put it in motion.  

Natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve for better mental health:

Vagus nerve stimulation can improve vagal nerve tone and your ability to respond to stress. With vagus nerve stimulation, you intentionally counteract the signals that cause anxiety.  

Basic healthy living strategies help activate your vagus nerve. That includes things like getting a proper amount of exercise, following a healthy and refraining from actions that induce stress (like watching the evening news for example) and getting enough sleep.  

Some practices improve your emotional regulation because they create the energy to cope when you are faced with stressful situations. In other words, they give your vagus nerve a chance to do its job to reduce stress and anxiety. They include: 

•    Biofeedback. 
•    Breathing exercises. 
•    Forest therapy. 
•    Mindfulness. 
•    Meditation. 
•    Tai chi and Qigong. 
•    Yoga. 

When these activities are repeated over time, you increase your heart rate variability and strengthen your vagus nerve function which will make you recover faster the next time your sympathetic nervous system responds to a trigger.  

Can you measure vagal nerve tone?  

The most widely studied measure of how well your vagus nerve is working is your heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is the variation (differences) in the time between your heartbeats.  

When you have a stronger vagal tone, your heart rate variability is higher. People with a weaker vagal tone have a less variable heart rate. 

A higher heart rate variability shows that your heart is constantly reacting to your environment through your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It suggests these systems are balanced and can adapt to the changes around you. 

Scientific studies have shown that people with higher heart rate variability have reduced heart disease, increased brain function and a more stable mood.  

Many commercially available mobile health devices can check heart rate variability. These devices may use a chest strap or clip to your ear or finger. Some fitness watches also measure heart rate variability, but may not be as accurate. 

Should you try natural vagus nerve stimulation at home?  

Most people can (and are encouraged to) practice calming activities that trigger their vagus nerve. As you try activities to strengthen your vagus nerve, pay attention to how you feel. If you become lightheaded, slow down or stop what you are doing until you feel better.

Your Vagus Nerve May Be Key To Fighting Anxiety and Stress

Juan Esterhuizen Transformation Psychologist & Life Coach

Juan Esterhuizen Transformation Psychologist & Life Coach is a published psychologist, integrative life coach and stress and trauma release therapist with a practice in Caledon. Offering a range of exclusive in-person and online psychological counselling services, Juan is also available to travel to...

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