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  • Insight into the Vagus Nerve and Your Anxiety

    UPDATE: Colleen contributed to the article How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve at Home written by Rebecca Strong for AskMen.

    The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls things like digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure and is responsible for calming down your body when stressed out. The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and travels down the neck, chest, abdomen, and pelvis. It connects to the heart, lungs, liver, stomach, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, bladder, and reproductive organs. It also has a major impact on emotions. When stressed, our bodies release hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response). The vagus nerve helps regulate these stress responses by sending signals back to the brain to slow down the fight-or-flight response. This means that if you have a lot going on in your life right now, your body may be trying to tell you to relax.

    A closer look at the basic anatomy of the vagus nerve.

    The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the human body. Its length varies between 40 cm and 50 cm. It begins in the medulla oblongatas and extends downwards through the neck into the chest. It sends out many branches throughout the entire body. Some branches go directly to the heart, while others provide sensory information to the lungs and stomach. There are 12 pairs of ganglia along the course of the vagus nerve. Each pair contains about 10,000 neurons. The largest number of neurons is found in the cervical ganglion, and the role of the neurons is to send messages from the brain to the rest of the body.

    How does the vagus nerve work?

    When we’re anxious or stressed, our brains produce chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals travel across synapses to other cells, binding with receptors. In this way, they can communicate with other cells. One type of chemical messenger is serotonin. Serotonin is known as an “anti-stress” hormone because it reduces anxiety. However, too much serotonin can cause problems such as depression.

    When we’re anxious, our bodies release adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol makes us feel tired and hungry. Norepinephrine causes the pupils to dilate and stimulates the central nervous system.

    Neurotransmitter levels rise during times of stress. If the level of neurotransmitters rises too high, the person will experience anxiety symptoms. For example, if someone experiences panic attacks, their body produces more adrenaline than normal. This increases heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea.

    What happens when the vagus nerve is stimulated

    When the vagus nerve gets stimulated, it sends signals to the brain, telling it to calm down. The vagus nerve is a major part of our nervous system that connects all of our organs together and controls many functions in our body. It’s also called the “vagal brake” because it slows us down when stressed or anxious. When you get stressed, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and your breathing becomes shallow. This can cause problems like headaches, muscle tension, and digestive issues.

    Our brains function best when relaxed, calm, and focused. A healthy brain requires oxygenated blood flow to support cognitive functions and emotional regulation. The vagus nerve helps regulate this process by slowing heart rate, increasing respiration, and relaxing muscles. This allows for more oxygenation of the brain and less stress on the cardiovascular system.

    Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system decreases blood flow to the brain, making it harder to think clearly and effectively. If the vagus nerve isn’t working properly, it could cause anxiety and other problems like depression, panic attacks, insomnia, digestive issues, and even autoimmune disorders.

    What are some factors that might impact how well your vagus nerve functions?

    Vagal tone refers to the strength of the signal sent from the brain to the body through the vagus nerve. If the vagus nerve is weak, the signal will not reach its destination as efficiently. People who suffer from chronic stress and anxiety tend to have lower vagal tone. To increase the vagus tone, it’s recommended to eat a balanced diet, get adequate sleep, exercise regularly, and take time each day to do something relaxing.

    Techniques someone can try at home to stimulate the vagus nerve. 

    Practice mindfulness meditation with deep breathing exercises. Mindfulness meditation involves you focusing on the present moment without judgment or attachment. You don’t judge yourself as “good” or “bad.” Just observe the thoughts and feelings that arise. Pairing this practice with a deep breathing exercise, such as the 5-5-5 method, will increase the amount of oxygen flowing through your body and into your brain. Breathe slowly through your nostrils for five seconds, exhale through the nose or mouth for another five seconds, then wait five seconds. Repeat these steps four more times.

    Practice self-care and include listening to music. Music has been shown to activate the vagus nerve, which explains why people who listen to relaxing music report feeling calmer. Try listening to soothing music while taking a bath or going for a casual walk. Anxiety often stems from being unable to control your environment; therefore, a purposeful attitude in securing days, times, and locations for self-care is essential.

    Practice muscle relaxation. When you tense up, you activate the sympathetic nervous system. By relaxing your muscles, you activate the parasympathetic system. Begin by systematically tensing a particular muscle group, such as your jaw, shoulders, neck, back, stomach, arms, legs, etc. Hold the tension for 10 seconds, then release. As you release the tension, notice how your muscle feels. Continue to focus on releasing tension with different muscle groups until you feel more relaxed than when you first started.

    Take time out for yourself. If you’re constantly working, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters most: yourself. Take some time each day to relax and unwind. This could be reading a book, watching TV, playing video games, or doing something else entirely. The key is finding a way to ensure you take care of yourself.

    Physical exercise. Exercise has been proven to have many benefits, including reducing anxiety. Exercise boosts dopamine levels, which improves attention and concentration. Exercise also decreases cortisol levels, which lowers stress.

    Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation causes stress hormones to rise, which makes you more anxious. Make sure you get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. If you struggle to fall asleep, try using a white noise machine to mask outside noises.

    Eat healthy foods. Eating well-balanced meals full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes will help keep your energy and mood stable. Avoid sugary treats, processed foods, and fast food. The vagus nerve runs right next to the digestive tract, so eating well-balanced meals can help reduce anxiety because they are easier to digest.

    Get adequate sunlight exposure. Exposure to bright light during the morning can boost serotonin production and decrease cortisol levels. Sunlight also helps regulate circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleep cycles.

    Maintain a positive outlook. A positive mindset is important for maintaining good mental health. It’s helpful to think about things that make you happy, like spending time with friends and family, exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep, and having fun.

    Get Support From A New Heights Mental Health Counselor

    New Heights counselors are mental health professionals specifically trained to address mental health concerns. They offer confidential counseling services to adults, teens, and children. As therapists, they can help you understand your anxiety and develop healthy coping skills. They will become part of your support team and work alongside you to improve your quality of life.

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    About the Author:

    Colleen Wenner New Heights Founder Clinical DirectorColleen Wenner is the founder and clinical director of New Heights Counseling, where she provides counseling services for individuals struggling with mental health issues. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Master Certified Addiction Professional. Colleen is a certified supervisor in Florida and an EMDR trauma-certified practitioner and consultant in training. Colleen is committed to providing excellent client care and services the Fort Walton Beach, Crestview, Niceville, Destin, and surrounding communities.

    Colleen has consistently advocated for mental health wellness and has dedicated her entire life to promoting awareness among the public. She has been featured on various podcasts such as Practice of the Practice (The #1 Podcast for counselors in private practice), Shrink Think Podcast, and The Salty Christan Podcast, to name a few. She has also contributed to several Yahoo Best Life, Unfinished Man, UpJourney, and WebMD articles. Colleen uses compassionate and authentic communication to help clients understand themselves better and feel more confident about their ability to improve their lives.