Combatting Stress: The Vagus Nerve

Are you interested in a quick intro to neuroscience lesson? How about some brain hacks to combat anxiety symptoms? You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response. This is our body’s natural protection response that primes the nervous system for danger. For many of us, this system tends to overreact. This is where our vagus nerve can come into play. 

Here’s our quick neuroscience lesson. The vagus nerve is one of our cranial nerves. It runs from our brain all the way through most of our major organ systems. It plays a crucial role in the functioning of our respiratory, circulatory, urinary and digestive systems. In addition, it is thought to contribute to our body’s inflammatory responses, breathing regulation and digestive regulation. The vagus nerve is a part of our parasympathetic nervous system. Its primary role is to slow the stress response in the body. For those of us who struggle with anxiety, stress, or simply feeling keyed up, we can learn to stimulate our vagus nerve in order to initiate this calming response in our bodies.

I’m a big fan of finding ways to calm our bodies that do not require us to try to think our way out of anxiety. Have you ever told someone you were feeling anxious and their (probably well-meaning) response was “What are you anxious about?” Sometimes we know, but a lot of the time we might not know. Sometimes we are not even anxious about anything in particular! Maybe something in our environment has reminded our body of a time when it was unsafe, creating a stress response. Or maybe we just don’t have the insight in the moment to look within and find the anxiety trigger. Either way, getting the vagus nerve to cooperate may give some relief.

So here are some simple tips to getting the vagus nerve to help us initiate a relaxation response.

Breathing: I know, right? I’m a therapist, I have to say breathing. But hear me out, okay? There is something biological that happens when we breath in a very specific way.
Breathe in longer than you breathe out, the exhale is what triggers the relaxation response in the vagus nerve.
Breathe deeply from the belly.
Breathe slowly.

Cold: Dunk your face in cold water, grab some ice and hold it in your hand, take a bag of peas from the freezer and put it on your face.

Humming: It doesn’t matter if it sounds good or not, just the process of humming alone can calm the nervous system.

Gargling: Find your favorite liquid and give it a gargle!

Laughing: Fake or real will do the trick!


So next time you are feeling dysregulated, try one of these vagus nerve regulation techniques and observe the changes you experience in your body.

*Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor a neuroscientist and nothing I say should be taken as medical advice or opinion.

By: Sara Pogue, MSW, LICSW
Photo by Claudia Barbosa from Pexels