Vagus Nerve Strengthening - Part Two
The Vagus nerve is the most important regulator of your nervous system and all systems in your body. Read Part One for an introduction to the Polyvagal Theory that is gaining attention in physical and emotional health.
Being able to regulate your own nervous system can empower you in your own health and is more simple than you might realize. It takes an understanding of anatomy and physiology and applying it to your daily life. You might already strengthen your muscles or memory but have you thought about strengthening your Vagus nerve? By improving the function of the Vagus nerve, you will be able to keep your body in a state of "health, restoration and growth" according to Stephen Porges and the Polyvagal Theory. You will also be able to quickly move through the sympathetic nervous system response to stress and back into the green zone of social engagement, where you can learn, make good decisions, have curiosity and optimal health.
The quickest way to regulate your nervous system is by stimulating the other eleven cranial nerves that share space either in the brain stem or along pathways that exit the brain with the Vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve. This is due to the myelinated neurons above the diaphragm that communicate information at a rapid speed. Here are some simple suggestions, in no particular order. My suggestion is to practice two or three of them on a daily basis, depending on the situation and environment you are in.
BREATHING - mindful breathing that overrides the automatic brain stem function is one of the easiest ways to stop a racing heart or flooding from adrenaline. Inhale through the nose as if smelling something fragrant and exhale through the mouth with pursed or puckered lips. Three breaths may be enough to reset the nervous system, but we recommend a daily practice of breathing up to ten long breaths so you can recall how to do this when you need it.
SINGING or HUMMING - vibration of your trachea (windpipe) stimulates the Vagus nerve as it travels under the sternum (breastbone). Try singing in the car or shower or when you attend church.
SMILING - the muscles of facial expression are innervated by cranial nerve VII, the Facial nerve. When you smile, you engage this nerve and it can quickly change your mood. Try smiling at yourself in the mirror or smiling at a grumpy person and you will see the rapid, positive change in yourself and others.
HUGGING - not only will you get the benefit of the bonding hormone, Oxytocin, but you will feel better. You can hug a person, a mammal such as a dog or a horse, or even a stuffed animal or blanket.
MOVING - this includes any form of exercise or recreation as well as vibration or sensation of moving. If you are in a bad mood or feel triggered, try taking a brisk walk. Even though it will not take away the problems you are facing or the stress you are experiencing, it will improve your response to it.
CRYING - ever notice how you feel better after a good cry? Crying stimulates several cranial nerves at once and is an effective reset for your nervous system. If you struggle to cry on demand, try watching a drama or listening to a song that caused you to cry in the past.
LAUGHING - similar to the effects of crying. Try watching a funny video, show or movie or hang out more with people that make you laugh.
SMELLING - scents that are pleasing and natural can be calming. It can be the smell of the salty air at the beach, a forest of lodgepole pines (a combination of vanilla caramel and pine in the mountains of Colorado) or diffusing essential oils. The sense of smell also provokes memories because of its pathway to the frontal lobe of your brain.
PULLING ON EARS - this stimulates the Vagus nerve along with the Trigeminal nerve and Facial nerve. All three nerves line the external meatus, or ear hole that is attached to the inner ear and eardrum. This can be effective for ear pain and tinnitus (ringing in the ear). Try pulling on your dog's ears and you will notice this powerful effect that will in turn relax and calm your nervous system.
RUBBING behind your ears where the Vagus nerves exits the skull at C1/C2 or vigorously massaging the scalp - you can use lotion or essential oils that are diluted in a carrier oil such as fractionated coconut oil. This is effective at helping neck pain and tension.
RUBBING or massaging below the collar bone where the Vagus nerve travels along with the Phrenic Nerve that supplies the diaphragm - this is effective for helping you breathe better and also loosen tight muscles in the front of the chest that contribute to rounded shoulders and poor posture.
SPLASHING cold water on your face or body - you can also use an Ice Roller or something similar like a Guasha tool on your face to stimulate both the Facial and Trigeminal nerves. You can also switch to cold water for the last 30 seconds of your daily shower. This has been known to improve metabolism and function of your mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells in your body.
TAPPING - alternating light tapping either with your arms crossed in front of your chest and repeating an affirmation such as "I am safe; I am loved; I am worthy" or using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) which involved tapping your fingers along specific meridians or energy fields in the body. There are trained professionals who can help you walk through triggering or traumatic events from your past and improve your stress response to a specific memory.
VIBRATING - you can stand on a vibration plate or use a high-speed percussion massager. We use the Hypervolt at our clinic on muscles and targeted areas that stimulate the nervous system to improve pain and function.
DRY NEEDLING - this is a quick reset for the nervous system to encourage rest and digest through the parasympathetic response. We practice a method of needling called Integrative Dry Needling at our clinic. Read here to learn more about this game-changing treatment for tight muscles and pain.
SEEKING GLIMMERS - these are things that give you an optimal state in your nervous system, where you want to hit the pause button and make your experience last longer. Some examples are gazing at a sunset or something beautiful in nature, feeling the warmth of the sun on your body or being intimate with a loving spouse or committed partner. Avoid the opposite or triggering effect with the wrong person or with unwanted physical contact.
As you take notice of these "glimmers" you will become mindful of your ability to regulate your nervous system and become empowered in your own health. You will also learn to intentionally seek moments that include one or several of these simple ways to improve health, restoration and growth. On the contrary, you will be more mindful of those around you and learn not to "match" their energy or nervous system. You can put up boundaries and avoid certain people, you can keep a distance from them (six feet or more) or you can help co-regulate their nervous system by smiling, encouraging movement or seeking "glimmers" with them, such as a walk in the park. Visit our Instagram page for videos and tips on exercising your Vagus nerve. If you are struggling to take a deep breath or want to experience hands-on treatment by one of our expert physical therapists, contact our office at (330)528-0034.
Disclaimer: this is not to replace medical advice from your healthcare provider or for your specific condition.
written by Janine Laughlin - October 2022
Reference Materials and Class Notes from Vagus Nerve Mojo Workshop by Perry Nickelston, January 2022.
Porges, Stephen. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory. W. W. Norton & Co. 2017.
Dana, Deb. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. W. W. Norton & Co. 2018.