Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

How To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve To De-Stress And Find Calm

The vagus nerve halts stress and regulates emotions. Here’s how to get it in tip-top shape.

Women’s Health

Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Patrik Giardino//Getty Images

You’re likely very familiar with the calming effects of a few deep breaths. But take a step back: Have you ever considered *why* deep breathing—and its cousins meditation and yoga—is so dang relaxing? (Hint: It’s not just because it forces you to literally slow down.) When you partake in this activity, you’re stimulating your vagus nerve, which exercises incredible power within your body.

It’s pronounced “Vegas,” like the city, but what happens in the vagus nerve doesn’t stay in the vagus nerve. The longest of the cranial nerves, it starts at the base of your brain. “It connects your throat, ear, and facial muscles and travels down both sides of the neck to the heart and lungs, through the stomach and intestines, touching almost every organ on its way down,” says Kelly Vincent, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Encinitas, California. Makes sense, then, that vagus means “wandering” in Latin.

This superhighway serves as a communication channel connecting the digestive system and your brain, which means it’s responsible for any “gut” feelings you get (reason enough to keep it in good shape!). Also hugely important: It helps your nervous system switch between the sympathetic mode (triggering the fight-or-flight response that raises heart rate) and the parasympathetic mode (when breathing normalizes and bodily functions settle into neutral).

But when you’re dealing with chronic stress, the vagus nerve loses its ability to send you back into parasympathetic mode (called vagal dysfunction), and you remain stuck on overdrive. This stress then puts you at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression and anxiety, as well as GI disorders, research shows. Problems with this nerve are also linked to symptoms of burnout, such as emotional exhaustion and lack of energy, per a study in Psychosomatic Medicine, and that can make you irritable and snappy in relationships. Whew, that’s a lot!

The reassuring news is that just as with any other part of your body, you can strengthen and improve function. Take that, modern stressors. Toning the vagus nerve boosts your body’s resiliency, or the ability to toggle between states of stress and calm, says a study from U.K. researchers. Greater vagal activation has also been shown to be anti-inflammatory (and it just helps ya feel better overall!).

Working on it isn’t a one-and-done situation, though—repetition is key, adds Vincent (we’re talking at least once a day). “The more you practice something, the more the brain reaches for it when it needs it most. You’re essentially carving out new neural pathways you can access in a time of high anxiety,” she says. Here’s how to help that big fellow do its job, for the sake of your mental and physical health. And yes, deep breathing is involved, but if that’s not your thing? There are plenty of unexpected ways to give it a little push.

Extend your exhale

Okay, starting with the biggie because it’s the foundation: “There are sensory receptors in the lungs that connect to the vagus nerve and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a fellow at the American Institute of Stress. But it’s not enough to just breathe. The calm-down process happens as you exhale, because this slows your heart rate. Therefore, it’s important to make your exhale longer than your inhale, she says. (Apps like Breathwrk can help with that.) This is also why other practices that slow your breath, like yoga and meditation, are useful tools for vagal activation and de-stressing in general. But, deep breathing is tough if you’re upset. If you’re on the brink of a freak-out, imagine blowing through a straw. Adding resistance by pursing your lips can help lengthen your exhale.

Happily hum

Talk about an earworm: “The vagus nerve passes through the inner ear, so you can stimulate it by engaging in active listening to soothing music,” says Arielle Schwartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in resilience in Boulder, Colorado. That can include not only a favorite song, but an audiobook or a guided meditation with an especially calming voice. (There are also vagus nerve music programs.) Soft, low sounds—like a cat’s purr—are inherently soothing.

Another way to tickle your vagus nerve? Generate sound on your own through singing or humming. That will tap into the nerve as it passes through your larynx and pharynx in the throat. (Bonus: Your exhalation is also so much longer with these vocalizations.) Placing your hands over your ears will amplify the sensation of the sound, adds Schwartz.

Pursue the cold

Frigid temps activate a physiological response called the diving reflex. This slows your heart rate and breathing and directs blood flow to the brain for relaxation, says Schwartz. To trigger it, spend some time outside on a brisk day, or hold ice on your face or neck, or splash your skin with cold water.

Find fresh air

Taking a walk outside is one sure-fire way to downregulate your nervous system and improve your mood, says the psychologist B. Grace Bullock, PhD, author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success, Integrating the Science of Mind, Body & Brain. And this doesn’t have to be a long-hike situation. Nature is inherently relaxing to the nervous system, making it so much easier to slow down your breathing, which, again, helps the vagus nerve do its thing. “I love to walk to my mailbox or take my dog out for a quick reset,” she says. Just leave your devices at home so you can take in the surroundings and get a truly calming effect.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Women’s Health

This post originally appeared on Women’s Health and was published December 1, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

Join WH+ today and enjoy unlimited access to digital content, exclusive workouts, and more.

Join Today