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5 Tools For A Healthy Vagus Nerve And Its Impact on Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health

Understanding the Impact of the Vagus Nerve On Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health

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Stress and anxiety have become prevalent issues in today's fast-paced world. Finding a balance between work and personal life feels nearly impossible, leaving us with more challenges and less time to cope. As we struggle to manage these challenges, many of us find ourselves overwhelmed in the endless search for effective strategies to find relief and improve our overall well-being. In recent years, there has been growing interest in the role of the vagus nerve in regulating our mental, emotional, and physical health. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of the vagus nerve and its profound impact on our well-being.

The Vagus Nerve and It's Function

The Vagus Nerve is Central to Dr. Porges' Polyvagal Theory of Emotion. The vagus nerve, also known as the "wandering nerve," is the 10th and longest cranial nerve in our body. Cranial nerves send electrical signal between your brain, face, neck and torso to help you taste, smell, hear, and feel sensations. They also help you make facial expressions, blink your eyes, and move your tongue. There are a set of 12 paired nerves in the back of your brain.

The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem down through the neck and into the chest and abdomen, connecting various organs including heart, gut, liver and lungs. The vagus nerve is the primary nerve supporting the parasympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for certain sensory activities and motor information for movement within the body. While it plays a vital role in regulating many bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiration, its influence extends far beyond the physical realm.

One of the key functions of the vagus nerve is its role in the autonomic nervous system, which controls our body's automatic responses to stress and relaxation. The vagus nerve is built around the balancing of two opposing actions in rhythmic alternation. This process supports healthy rhythms of alertness and restfulness that facilitate physical, mental and emotional health.

Two branches:

Firstly, the sympathetic branch is responsible for the "fight-flight-fawn" response. The executive function of this branch is to release stress chemicals, like cortisol, throughout the bloodstream. This branch allows us to feel alert, active, and ready to move.

Secondly, the parasympathetic branch is responsible for the "rest-digest and freeze" response. The executive function of this branch helps promote a sense of calm, relaxation, and overall well-being by releasing chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine into the bloodstream. It is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration.

Let's talk about the freeze state

Freeze states often occur during traumatic experiences, leaving us paralysed in fear. The freeze response is triggered when we can't fight or flee from a situation. In this state, both the sympathetic and parasympathetic states are simultaneously activated.

The parasympathetic system takes over when our body determines that fighting or fleeing is not an option. While the parasympathetic state is typically associated with rest and relaxation, in extreme emergency situations, it counterbalances the physical effects of stress hormones, leading to a freeze state.

During a freeze state, our heart rate and breathing slow down, and we may feel cold, numb, or trapped within our body due to pain-killing hormones that reduce the physical and emotional impact. This state also affects memory, making it difficult to recall parts or all of the experience.

"Although freezing serves adaptive purposes, it can have a detrimental affect our mental health. We can feel guilt, shame and self-directed anger if we consider we have not protected ourselves. It is important to remember that freezing is an unconscious defence mechanism and in the moment, offered the best chance of survival." - Westmeria

Using Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Improve Physical, Mental, and Emotional Wellbeing

Research has shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can have significant positive effects on mental health, including reducing anxiety and depression symptoms. It achieves this by activating the parasympathetic branch and dampening the stress response; this process is also know as vagal tone. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. Additionally, the vagus nerve is involved in regulating the release of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play essential roles in mood regulation. Below, we will discuss tools that can increase your vagal tone.

Woman with brown hair and hair fringe. She is blowing on two white dandelion flowers. The seeds are floating in the air. Outside environment.

So, how can we harness the power of the vagus nerve to support our mental and emotional well-being? Here are a few strategies:

Deep Breathing and Meditation:

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing techniques, along with meditation practices, can activate the vagus nerve and promote a state of relaxation. In yoga philosophy, conscious breathing, pranayama, is the practice of liberating, extending, expanding, and/or slowing the breath in order to find stillness in the mind. By focusing on slow, deliberate breaths, specifically extending the length of the exhale, you can stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the vagus nerve and help calm your mind and body.

According to a new study from Stanford Medicine, a simple breathing exercise has shown to help decrease anxiety and low mood. They tested three types of breathing exercises and a mindful meditation that focuses the breath awareness. Participants of the Cyclical Sighing breathing group showed the greatest daily improvement of positive feelings based on a positive and negative mood questionnaire. These effects were observed to increase as the study went on, suggesting the more consistently they practiced, the more it helped improve their mood.

Cyclical Sigh, also known as the Physiological Sigh, can be safely and easily practiced at home. In fact, it's no life hack or new style of breathing. This breathing technique can be observed naturally in dogs after they get cozy in bed or in a person who has moved through a good crying session. It's the body's natural and most effective way of bring you into balance and into a calmer state.

How to Cyclically Sigh
  1. Take a full breath through the nose, comfortably filling the lungs.

  2. Sip in a bit more air through the nose again filling the lungs a little more.

  3. Exhale slowly through pursed lips or sighing the breath out.

  4. As you exhale, focus on lengthening and slowing down the exhale each time making it a bit longer than the last.

  5. Do this for 5 minutes to get the full effect. However, even taking 1-3 rounds of this breath has been shown to calm the mind and body. So use it as a breath break when you are in need of a chill out.

For those of you who might be struggling to find

time for these types of practices, the Stanford study found that just 5 minutes of this practice can have a profound positive impact on mood and stress levels.

A group of people practicing mindful movement. People sitting on a yoga mat sitting cross legged and stretching toward the left with right arm overhead. Bald man in the front wearing an orange shirt and black shorts.

Mindful Movement:

Engaging in mindful movement practices, such as yoga or tai chi, can also activate the vagus nerve and promote a sense of calm and balance. These activities combine gentle physical movements with focused attention, creating a harmonious connection between the mind and body.

You don't have to reconstruct your usual fitness regime to practice mindful movement. Mindful movement simply involves bring more awareness to your mind-body connection. For example, taking time to notice how your body feels in certain positions, and the quality of your breath (slowing the breath and breathing through the nose, generally).

If yoga asana is your chosen practice, there are more subtle things happening to the body here, depending on the style and teacher you are practicing with. Some of the major characteristics of a comprehensive yoga practice might include concentration, playing with the breath, bringing the awareness to the subtle sensations of the body and mind, getting into postures that target areas of the body and stimulate certain organs. A complete practice might also include internal or external Mudras, which means a gesture, seal, pose and lock. This can look like a hand gestures, focus eye gaze (drishti), or engaging a body lock, to tighten, to close-off and block (bunddha). It could also include chanting sacred sacred syllables, we'll discuss this more below.

Research has shown tremendous benefits of yoga for increased vagal tone, stress reduction, and trauma recovery. "Yoga practices, when provided as a comprehensive methodology, are proposed to integrate autonomic, cognitive, affective and behavioural processes for regulation across physical, psychological and behavioural domains. Through both top-down and bottom-up practices, yoga may be effective at down-regulating the system towards parasympathetic, ventral (Front side) vagal dominance (Streeter et al., 2012; Gard et al., 2014; Schmalzl et al., 2015). It is when yoga is practiced and understood as a cohesive and comprehensive system that the benefits for self-regulation and resilience may be realized."

Jeannette, smiling, submerged in a blue ice bath with a large rubber duck in the tub with her. A bald man in black shirt and shorts keeping time on a phone.

Cold Exposure:

Surprisingly, exposure to cold temperatures, such as cold showers or swimming in cold water, can stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic branch. This practice, known as cold thermogenesis, has been shown to improve mood, increase resilience to stress, and enhance overall well-being.

Cold exposure has shown to stimulate the vagus nerve resulting in lower heart rate variability and therefore stress reduction. This 2018 study in the National Library of Medicine noted that "the results demonstrate a pattern of cardiovascular reactivity to cold stimulation, suggesting an increase in cardiac-vagal activation. The effect was significant for cold stimulation in the lateral neck area."

The key in the study above is that cold exposure was most effective when the cold water reached the back of the neck.

The good news is, you don't have to jump straight into a cold bath or take a cold shower. Start by taking cold showers in the summer and keep it going through the year. Like all practices you can work up to the longer cold showers or ice baths. According to Wim Hof, the Ice Man, 2 minute cold water exposure is all you need in a winter sea dip and with commitment to the practice - "Proper exposure to the cold starts a cascade of health benefits, including the buildup of brown adipose tissue and resultant fat loss, reduced inflammation that facilitates a fortified immune system, balanced hormone levels, improved sleep quality, and the production of endorphins— the feel-good chemicals in the brain that naturally elevate your mood."

A brown and white little bird standing on a piece of wood in the forest. Bird's beak is open like it's singing

Using The Voice:

The vagus nerve runs through the face and neck, including the vocal cords. Engaging the vocal cords by singing, chanting, humming, or gargling can bring you into a parasympathetic state by stimulating the vagus nerve.

Some people struggle to use their voice for singing, however, any engagement of the voice helps release unwanted tension and gain full access the lungs. There is no such thing as being "good at singing" when it comes to reaping the benefits of this practice. In the act of extending the exhale as you sing, scream, chant, or gargle, you are stimulating the vagus nerve not only at the throat but also the lungs, resulting in a powerful release that increases heart rate variability and vagal tone.

This 2011 study in the National Library of Medicine, showed improvements in mood from chanting "OM", pronounced AUM, in the treatment for depression because of its ability to stimulate the vagus nerve. This 2022 study showed that a brief chanting of OM (5 min) enhances parasympathetic nervous system activity, promote relaxation, and provide calmness especially when practiced consistently.

Group of women at a ceremony, standing in a circle, reaching their hands to the middle in communion.

Social Connections:

Meaningful social connections and supportive relationships have a profound impact on our mental health. Research suggests that positive social interactions can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote feelings of safety and connection. Cultivating strong social ties and engaging in activities that foster human connection can be immensely beneficial for managing stress and anxiety.

According to Dr, Porges in his Polyvagal Theory of Emotion (1995), when we enhance our connection with other people, we trigger neural circuits in our bodies that calm the heart, relax the gut and turn off the fear response. For example, in social situations where we feel confident, our heart rate and breathing slows down, our blood pressure drops and our stress response switches off. Our bodies enter a state of physical calm. We feel safe enough to move closer to another person, making intimacy possible. Dr. Porges explains, "The ventral (front) side of the vagus nerve responds to cues of safety in our environment and interactions. It supports feelings of physical safety and being safely emotionally connected to others in our social environment. The dorsal (back) side of the vagus nerve responds to cues of danger." However, the benefits of social connection only works if our nervous system detect we are safe, through facial expression, speech and listening.

Hand reaching toward the sun surrounded by a forest. Tall pine trees in the blurry background. There is a silver ring on the ring finger in the shape of a horizontal bar.

In conclusion, understanding the vagus nerve and its impact on mental, emotional, and physical health can provide valuable insights into managing gut issues, stress and anxiety. By implementing practices that activate the parasympathetic branch of the vagus nerve, such as deep breathing, mindful movement, cold exposure, singing and fostering social connections, individuals can find relief and improve their overall well-being. Healing is much closer than you think. Remember, small steps towards self-care and self-awareness can lead to significant positive changes in our lives.

Want to learn more?

I'm teaming up with my good friend Florence Winterflood, qualified as a multi-style yoga instructor and artist, @DragonFlo_Yoga, to help you harness the power of your vagus nerve. We are planning a workshop, The Secret Powers of the Vagus Nerve, on July 16 at About Balance Brighton where you will gain the tools to help you heal and manage gut health, stress and anxiety. Stay up to date with all workshop happenings on @ethereal_lotus_yoga and @dragonflo_yoga on Instagram. We are currently holding a giveaway for free entry to upcoming workshop.

Flyer of the up coming workshop "The Secret Powers of the Vagus Nerve". There is a shape of a body with the central nervous system showning. The brain is sprouting leaves and flowers. The lungs are displayed. The gut is shown with a happy face. Colors are light blue and tones of green. Very calming. Detail are as outlined: Discover the hidden path to healing: Tune into the power of your vagus nerve through: Practical tips for everyday well-being. Yoga Philosophy, Asana, Pranayama Breathwork, Meditation, Neuroscience, Group discussion. Especially beneficial for individuals that struggle with gut problems, stress and anxiety and want to use holistic practices to manage their overall mental, emotional and physical health. Reserve your space at WWW.about Sunday July 16, 2:30-5:30pm @About Balance Brighton. £44-33 for Karma Card Members

Please Note:

It is important to note that while these strategies can support mental and emotional well-being, they should not replace professional medical advice or treatment. Everybody's body is different and as such will respond differently to different types of treatment and intervention. If you are experiencing severe or persistent symptoms of stress or anxiety, it is essential to seek guidance from a healthcare professional.

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