Let's talk about Vagus!
Updated: Jan 9
No not Vegas - Vagus! If you haven’t heard of the vagus nerve and you suffer from stress and anxiety or depression, you need to read on.
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that connects the mind to the body and is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system. There are actually two nerves on each side of the body running from the brain stem down through the chest and into the intestines. The vagus nerve supplies motor parasympathetic fibres to all the organs from the neck down - except the adrenal glands - down to the colon and also some of the skeletal muscles. The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling heart rate, sweating, digestion, triggering the full stomach response back to the brain, the gag reflex, speech and more. It is responsible for triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic system is the antidote to the fight or flight stress response, which is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, and sometimes referred to as the rest and feed, or rest and repair state.
These states are easily understood when watching wildlife documentaries. You know the scene, there’s a herd of Zebra grazing and somewhere in the background a Lioness is stalking them through the long grass. Suddenly she makes her move and all the Zebra’s go into fight or flight mode - usually the flight mode - they flee. The lioness picks one to chase and the Zebra is running for its life. The zebra’s body has sent extra oxygen and blood to the organs it needs to run - its muscles, its heart and its lungs and in doing so has diverted blood and oxygen away from other organs that are not used in the flight response such as the stomach. The Zebra somehow manages to outrun the lioness and the chase is off. The Zebra then goes back to his herd and carries on with the previous activities of grazing and drinking water - the rest and feed state. Fortunately for the Zebra, its brain is not overthinking the life or death situation, it is not ruminating over the size of the lioness or why it chased them instead of others - it just switches back to its normal life pattern. This is unlike humans, who because of the thought processes in their brains - their ability to plan forward and their ability to analyse memories, can overthink and ponder on difficult experiences and thoughts.
Not many of us are running away from hungry wild animals, many of us are worrying about paying the mortgage, staying in our relationship, dealing with our loved ones. Yet our fight and flight response still works in the same way as when we may have been fleeing wild animals or fighting rival tribe members. The body is sending the same signals and physical responses to fear and danger, but we are not running anywhere. Very often a cycle of fearful thinking and bodily response turns into chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
So the vagus nerve is something you need to understand if you wish to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and enter the rest and fed/repair state. Keeping this nerve healthy and toned is important to your mental health. How do we do this? Here are some ways.
1. Deep diaphragmatic breathing ensuring our out breath is longer than our in breath. An easy way of doing this is the 5,2,7. Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 2 and breathe out for 7. You may find you can increase the out breath to 10 seconds with practice.
2. Chanting, humming or singing.
3. Icy baths or plunge pools or splashing your face with cold water, holding ice against your face whilst you hold your breath (aka the diving reflex)
4. Social connection with others - be in the company of people that you like and feel safe with.
5. Self compassion and self care - make your inner voice kind and practice your favourite relaxation technique - candlelit bath, reading, watching favourite film.
Knowing our physical responses to fear and how our bodies work is useful in knowing how to combat stress and anxiety. Be like the Zebra :)