Intentional Living

How The Vagus Nerve Can Stop Anxiety In Its Tracks

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I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night. My Vagus Nerve on high alert. One second fast asleep, the next wide-awake and staring at the ceiling.

I knew something was going on… there was something that woke me up.. something that I needed to know. I looked up at the ceiling where my alarm clock projects the time, 2:31am. 

2:31am projected onto the ceiling
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When Anxiety Attacks

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something. What it was did not register. I continued to stare – half awake – at the ceiling, sleep threatening to creep back in… and then I heard something. Not a ‘loud something’ – but not a ‘normal sounding something’. 

My heart kicked into high gear and my breathing became shallow – though at the time i still didn’t know why. 

And then… I SAW IT! A bat! –  Zig-Zagging around the dark room in that weird alien way, its wings making barely audible but horrifying little sounds.

Bat flying at night

Before I fully processed what was happening, I was yelling “Bat! Bat!” and huddling under the covers, pulling with my daughter who was sleeping next to me.  My heart raced as I called out “Brad – there’s a bat! There’s a bat!”

My poor husband, who was sleeping right next to us (and had probably heard me the first damn time) calmly got out of bed, said “OK” and proceeded to save the day (trapping the little guy and releasing him unharmed within a matter of 5 minutes).

We all had a giggle and settled back into bed, but it took a good 30 minutes for the adrenaline to leave my body enough to allow me to rest. 


Bats are Cool, Right?!

The thing is I am intellectually aware that bats are unlikely to harm me. Yes – they can carry Rabies but this little guy didn’t want to be anywhere near us. He just wanted out of the room.

I actually quite like bats – they are kinda cute, they eat mosquitoes and they are pretty fascinating as the only mammals that have the ability to fly.

But none of these facts matter when I suddenly see a bat darting chaotically around my home – my reaction bypasses any sort of rational thought and my stress response shoots from zero to 100 before the rest of my brain catches up. 


Oh no, am I Late?

Later this same week, I was driving into work when a stray thought popped into my head. I was supposed to be at an early morning meeting and that I hadn’t left home in enough time to make it.

woman driving a car

In a nanosecond, every muscle in my body had tensed, my heart slammed in my chest and my breathing became shallow.

Luckily, some rational part of my brain eventually strolled into the party and said ‘Hey Champ – pullover and check your calendar on your phone. Worst comes to worst, you can always call into the meeting – it’s 2022!” 

In the end, I was wrong about the meeting – it was scheduled for the following week – and all was good. But once again, it took the rest of the half hour drive to work to return for my body to a somewhat relaxed state. 


Situational Response

My emotional and physical stress response in both of these scenarios were nearly identical. Thinking about both situations, I felt frustrated with myself for my reactions.

I was never in any real danger in either case and my stress response only served to make me feel silly and a bit exhausted.

But that’s the thing with stress and anxiety – it so often feels out of our control. 


Juggling Priorities

Listen – living a full life is A LOT! We’re always juggling priorities (y’know… work obligations, nighttime pest control), all the while wondering if we are prioritizing the right things! 

And all this juggling is stressful! 

In the past I’ve attempted to learn to actually juggle (like, with balls) and I always ended up just chaotically throwing two balls back and forth while awkwardly holding a third one, and pathetically asking those around me “I’m doing it right.” 

Life can feel eerily similar to this – between work, family fun, and social obligations, it’s no wonder so many of us often feel overwhelmed and constantly worried we are going to drop the ball.

The thing is, anxiety is actually the adaptive survival response of an evolved brain.


Some science stuff

Anxiety is the physiological result of sympathetic nervous system activation. There is nothing wrong with you if you experience occasional or chronic bouts of anxiety.

It actually means your nervous system is responding in the way it has evolved to respond. It is doing the thing that has successfully kept humans alive for 1000’s of years. 

Ok, but what does this actually mean? 


Table of Contents


The Sympathetic Nervous System

Essentially, whenever we experience a stressor or perceived danger, our brains automatically send a message to our sympathetic nervous system. 

Brain: “Hey Symp – you up?”

Brain and the Vagus Nerve

This system, in turn, dumps a bunch of hormones into our bloodstream that trigger a rapid, involuntary response. This increases our body’s ‘alertness’ by increasing our heart rate and respirations and sending a bunch of extra blood to our muscles.

You guessed it – this bitch tells our body it is time for fight or flight. Fuuuuuun. 

This sympathetic nervous system response is adaptive and important when you are truly in danger.   


Danger, Danger

The problem is, your brain doesn’t know the difference between the stress caused by a truly life threatening situation and the stress caused by an infuriatingly vague “we need to chat” message from your boss.

Because of this, it can feel like anxiety is lurking around every corner waiting to attack. For some of us, we can get ‘locked in’ to this sympathetic response – exhausted by the unending urge to yell at someone (everyone?) or hide under the covers and cry.

At times, this cycle can ultimately result in an anxiety disorder.

Long standing or chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system is not only emotionally painful, it is also associated with serious physical health risks. 


Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers

Robert Sapolsky’s Book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” is my favorite resource for better understanding anxiety and stress and the long term impacts of the body’s stress response. It is as entertaining as it is insightful – I highly recommend checking it out.

The more you understand anxiety, the less power it will have over you and your life.


The Magical Vagus Nerve

Ok – it’s not really magic, it’s physiology.  But close enough! 

The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originate in the brain and run down through the chest and abdomen. It plays an important role in regulating the body’s systems, including heart rate, digestion, and respiration.

Vagus nerve activity has a significant impact on how our mind and body respond to stressors.

This is because the vagus nerve governs the parasympathetic nervous system – otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’ system.  It’s this system, governed by the vagus nerve that counterbalances our body’s “fight-or-flight” response.

Healthy Vagal nerve stimulation plays an important role in developing a healthy stress response. 


Vagus Nerve Stimulation

By way of simple explanation, when the vagus nerve is stimulated, it activates the Parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for telling the body it’s time to chill.

Parasympathetic activation slows our heart rate and drops our blood pressure. When we’re anxious, our heart rate increases and we start to breathe more quickly. 

Vagus nerve stimulation can help “turn off” or “reverse” this physiological anxiety response and help you return to being cool as a cucumber. 

Luckily, for us anxious cucumbers, there are relatively easy Vagus nerve stimulation strategies we can use to stimulate our Vagus nerve when we need to combat anxiety.


Vagus Nerve Stimulation Strategies

aaaand Big Breath Out

As little as one minute of deep breathing can activate your Vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. For deep breathing to be effective for Vagus nerve stimulation, our exhale needs to be longer than your inhale.

Try a few rounds of this deep breathing pattern – inhale for a slow count of 4; exhale for a slow count of 6.

Good Vocal Vibrations

Interestingly, humming or singing are also effective strategies for stimulating the vagus nerve. The vibrations from your vocal chord when you hum or sing stimulate the part of the vagus nerve that passes near your carotid artery. 

Cold Feet Neck

Applying a cold compress to the neck area has also been found to stimulate the Vagus nerve and in-turn our friend the Parasympathetic nervous system (who I have now nick-named Perry).

To wake Perry up, grab a cold face cloth or a frozen bag of peas wrapped in a towel and lay it over your upper chest neck area. Many people have found this strategy helpful in falling asleep at night. 

A Magical Egg

This Sensate Relaxation Device is my favorite strategy for stopping the mind-racing anxiety that doesn’t seem to respond to anything else. I find it especially effective at night time when I’m trying to turn my mind off so I can sleep.

This nifty device combines the science of Vagus nerve stimulation with an innovative use of calming sound resonance. 

You Got This!

If you struggle with anxiety, these strategies may be worth a try. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed try one, or multiple, of these strategies – and just growl menacingly at anyone who dares to ask why you are lying on the ground at work with frozen peas on your chest, practicing deep breathing and peacefully humming Lizzo to yourself. (Check this out if you’re a Vinyl lover!) You may be surprised at how much better you feel!

It’s About Damn Time!!

In all seriousness, anxiety can be extremely debilitating. Often we don’t understand what triggers it and while it’s good to do the work to understand why anxiety is haunting us, it is critical to have a friend like Perry who can help us convince our bodies we are safe when anxiety comes a-callin’.  

Bonus

And as a bonus – the more you practice vagus nerve stimulation, the more you improve your Vagal tone. Improved Vagal tone is associated with improved mental health, a stronger immune system, reductions in chronic pain and decreased inflammatory responses.

Overcoming anxiety is possible with the right tools and strategies. So don’t give up hope! 

To learn more about how to making friends with the vagus nerve, check out the book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism.

This book is FULL of useful information. Quite honestly – it’s life changing. I recommend buying the physical book so you can mark it up, dog ear it and keep it with you at all times!


And for those of you who want to know about the Vagus Nerve right now … read on my fellow brain science nerds! 🙂


Vagus Nerve Speed Date

How does the Vagus Nerve Work

The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the cranial system and runs from the brain to the abdomen.

The vagus nerve coordinates breathing and heart rate, and sends signals through the digestive tract into your brain. It is called a bidirectional neural network as it sends information to and from the brain.


What is the Basic Anatomy of the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve transmits signals between the digestive system and the brain. Its the 10th cranial nerve extending from its source within brain tissue to the head, neck, thoracic area to the abdomen.

Because of its long journey throughout the human body, this nerve is often called “wanderer nerve”. The vagus nerve exits from the Medulla Oblongata near the inferior cerebellar peduncle.


What is Vagal tone?

The vagus nerve is regulated by the heart. Increased heart rate variability and lower cardiac output is associated with improved Vagal tone. Better cardiac health = better Vagal tone.


Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation

The Vagus nerve is stimulated with an electrodes. Currently, transcutaneous noninvasive stimulation with a direct transvenous approach is the most frequently used technology.


Vagus nerve stimulation by other means

Many biofeedback treatments and yoga techniques rely on breathing patterns that activate the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve in particular.

Longer exhalations help stimulate the vagus nerve. Clinical studies of respiration-induced vagus nerve stimulation confirm this.

Various yoga exercises involving deep, diaphragmatic slow breathing can indirectly activate certain vagus nerve branches.


Clinical vagus nerve stimulation for Mental Health

Dr. Girish Kunigiri, a Psychiatrist in the United Kingdom, has experience working for the Bradgate Psychiatric Unit in Leicester. Vagus nerve stimulation was suggested by him for people who are depressed.

The success rate of anti-depressant medicines is around 50%. We frequently can’t determine what’s causing the issue.

Scientific research from Europe shows that Vagal stimulation over three years can produce a response rate of 37% and remission rates of 17%. After 2 years, the response to treatment was 53% and the return rate was 33%.

Meta analyses comparing the application of Vagal stimulation to the normal therapy in depression patients showed an onset response rate of 50% for acute stages of the illness and an extended recovery rate of 10% after 2 years of treatment.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Inflammatory Disorders

Vagus nerve stimulation can inhibit systemic inflammation.

Scientific research has shown that rats with gastrointestinal infection who received nerve stimulation daily, at 3 hour long intervals, had a reduced incidence of inflammation and improved colitis symptoms.

Vagus nerve stimulation may also be of interest when it comes to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and autoimmune disorders. This may be one reason vagus nerve stimulation has been effective reducing chronic pain.

Vagus nerve stimulation side effects

Dr Girish Kunigiri argues that vagus nerve stimulation is generally short-lived and rarely harmful. Some side-effects might include mild recurring coughing, hoarseness, or changes to voice tone, which are improved by time to time.

A scientific research review of vagus nerve stimulation was completed in January 2012. Medical guidance was updated in August 2020. This research and guidance suggests that further research should be conducted in order to better understand efficacy and safety.

Vagus nerve stimulation Stimulation for PTSD

Vagus nerve stimulation is proving to provide effective relief for treatment-resistant anxiety disorders. Vagal stimulation reduced anxiety in rats and improved Hamilton anxiety score in patients with treatment-resistant depression.