Love your vagus nerve

One of the great mysteries of life, is how the vagus nerve can be so widely ignored. It’s the biggest nerve in the body and it extends from brain (starting near the carotid artery) and down through the chest cavity. It directly communicates with the lungs, heart, liver, blood vessels in the lungs, heart and gut, the stomach and small intestine, the pancreas, and the enteric nervous system, which I wrote about before.

One of the big things it does, is get the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. It balances out the whacked, adrenaline-crazed sympathetic nervous system, and gets us to chill out. It can head anxiety attacks off at the pass. It can cancel panic before gets hold of you. It tames the tigers of agitation and edginess, and soothes jangled nerves.  It It gets our proverbial runaway Prius of a system to actually stop accelerating — like shifting into neutral, or unsticking the floormat that’s wedged under our brake — and it gives our body the ability to decelerate, already.

Let’s face it, going 90 mph all day, every day… bouncing from one multi-task flurry to another is no way to live. Survive, sure — but don’t we want more than that? We eat… but do we digest? Do we even taste the food we eat? We sleep… but do we rest? When we wake up, are we even truly awake? We pump ourselves up with caffeine and sugar, then we bring ourselves down with a huge meal followed by television and/or a couple of beers. All the while, our internal system — which is built to bring us up and down appropriately on its own — is getting fried and whacked out and driven to extremes that make it forget it knows how to do this job by itself.

Honestly, people, is this any way to live?

I don’t think so.

The good news is, we’ve got a system that knows how to chill out like nobody’s business. And the techniques to get it to do that are always ready at hand, relative easy to do, and they cost absolutely NOTHING to do. No paying for a huge meal or a six-pack or a tall skinny Americano that you had to wait in line for 20 minutes to get.

It’s free. And in these days of fiscal limitation and reduced monetary means, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Oh, wait — it’s not actually free. You have to give something to get: that something is your intention and attention. You have to make an effort. It doesn’t cost money, but it costs you something even more precious and sometimes more challenging to produce — deliberate attention and regular practice.

If you’re willing to put in the effort to practice this, and you’ve got enough resolve to actually do this, it’s yours for the having.

But if you don’t want to bother… well, there’s not much I can do for you.

Okay, if you’ve decided you want to know how to make the most of your vagus nerve, here’s a picture of the Autonomic Nervous System, compliments of Scholarpedia:

ans

You can click on it to zoom in. Check out all the parts of your body that are affected by the vagus nerve (or “nerve X” as it’s sometimes called) — that starts up in the right-hand corner of the picture, near the base of the brain.

And here’s a zoom of it, with the organs it’s connected with highlighted.

Vagus nerve connections close-up

Vagus nerve connections close-up

See all that vital stuff going on? Well, those are pieces you can’t live without, and to function properly, they need to have input from the parasympathetic as well as the sympathetic nervous system.

Everything’s connected, as we all know. But we tend to lose sight of the dualities that we need in order to get by. There seems to be a general trend towards partisanship — you’re either a Republican or a Democrat, either a conservative or a liberal… and nothing in between. Well, the human body has multiple sides, as well, but those sides need to be working together regularly and effectively, in order to have optimum health.

If Washington worked like this, we might get somewhere… but I digress…

Now, bringing balance to our systems so that we can rest and digest and allow our systems to catch up with themselves — and jump back into the fray with even more energy and resolve and focus — is a great way to live your life. And it’s not that difficult, actually.

You just breathe. Breathe deeply. Slow the breath and pay attention to the feeling of the breath moving through your nostrils and into you lungs. Fill your lungs up, so that they press against the inside of your chest cavity and stimulate the vagus nerve, which will in turn tell your system to ratchet it down a bit… send a little of the good stuff through our hormonal pathways, and reward us wonderfully for the effort we’ve put out. Do it for three breaths… or five… or ten. Do it for a minute… or two… or five. But do it. The more you try it, the more you’ll like it. I sure do.

Think of it as your reward. Stimulating the PNS with deep, controlled breathing (for me, anyway) is not about dropping out of life and running away from the fray. It’s not about being a wuss and hiding out, just breathing deeply while the rest of the world rolls on by. Quite the contrary. For me, it’s all about rewarding myself with a much-needed break, building back up my resources, so I have the energy and strength and focus and resolve to jump back into things — and do it well, in ways that are better than they were before.

Gotta love that vagus nerve!

Okay… gotta breathe…

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25 thoughts on “Love your vagus nerve

  1. Very helpful information, (Love your Vagus Nerve), i will be doing exactly what you recomend. I have suffered lightheadedness now for years, and due to a panic attack while at traffic lights, will not drive in mainstream traffic. I am meditating and using deep breathing with that.

  2. Hey Sue –

    I’m glad you found my post helpful.

    What I’ve been doing, which has started to change some really entrenched panic/anxiety-related problems with me, is I’ll think about a situation that makes me nervous, and I’ll envision/experience myself handling it the way I want to. Things like having discussions about difficult subjects with my spouse are really good candidates for that kind of creative visualization of success.

    Then, later I will physically put myself in a somewhat similar situation. And then I’ll do that deep, measured breathing when I feel the panic and anxiety starting to come up (which it usually does). I’ll take a few deep, measured breaths during the discussion, and it really seems to help. Also, seeing me do that helps calm my spouse, who is accustomed to me “going off” over difficult subjects — so they tend to steer clear of me and those kinds of talks.

    What I’m hoping happens (and what seems to be happening), is that I’m learning how to stop the biochemical blast when it starts to get ramped up. By stimulating my parasympathetic nervous system to do its thing, at a time when I can tell my sympathetic nervous system is getting way too enthusiastic, I’m hoping I can not only stop that knee-jerk reflex response that comes up with me, but I can also gain more experience actively managing my body’s responses to what’s going on around it. I’m also hoping my spouse can tell that I’m actively working on this issue, so we can discuss the difficult subjects (like money) that we both tend to avoid, but which ultimately are unavoidable.

    The body is an amazing creation that knows how to keep us alive. It just gets a little over-enthusiastic at times, and if we don’t manage it, it can run wild — and end up managing us.

    Good luck with the traffic lights!

    BB

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  4. BB,
    Interesting name, by the way. I feel I can relate to “broken brilliant” in that I’ve always been considered intelligent, yet can have great difficulty utilizing it because of anxiety and panic.
    Anyway, the reason I’m posting is that I noticed your original post was in April 2010 (good post btw). I am curious if you have kept up with deep breathing and if so, how has it worked? Do you feel that over time you have been able to bring down your “resting level” of anxiety? Are you significantly less affected by your thoughts and external events? Has the progress plateaued?
    I have suffered with anxiety and panic for probably over 16 years. I have trouble sticking with solutions because I get frustrated and panicky at the first sign they are not working. I have used yoga and meditation on and off with varying degrees of success. I have been taking Paxil and Klonopin for over 6 years. The past couple weeks I have tried to get serious about deep breathing. I have seen positive results, but I still easily slip back into panicky thoughts and feelings. Part of me says,”Just keep at it, it will take time,” whereas another part of me says, Your anxiety is too strong and too deeply ingrained.” Its a back and forth battle every day.
    Your thoughts would be appreciated, thanks.
    -Aaron

  5. Aaron –

    Thanks for writing. In fact, my resting anxiety levels have reduced a lot. I understand the experience of those internal messages – it happens to me, as well. However, I have learned that it just is not true – I cannot always control my feelings of anxiety, but I can control my responses to them, and that is the difference. For me, exercise and diet are as important for my mental health as deep breathing. Making sure I get some exercise each day – at least a little – and not eating too much sugar, carbs, and caffeine is key.

    I cannot speak for others, but my anxiety is a physical condition that “tells” me it is mental. When I treat it as a physical condition that I can also address with my attitude and thoughts of determination to get my life back and LIVE, it makes all the difference on the world.

    I probably lived with intense anxiety and panic for 30+ years, but never realizd it. If I can be free, surely, so can you!

    Best of luck
    BB

  6. BB,
    Thanks for your reply. I was hoping you could clarify one part – “my anxiety is a physical condition that “tells” me it is mental.” That is an interesting statement. Can you elaborate?
    Thanks,
    Aaron

  7. Sure Aaron –

    My experience of anxiety is directly linked to how activated my sympathetic nervous system is. When my fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system is on high alert, it gets my adrenaline going, it shuts out a lot of “noise” of different details of what’s happening around me — so only the most “important” survival based info gets through — and it puts my whole system on edge. It exaggerates every one of my responses to things that happen around me, so that I jump out of my skin, if I hear a sudden sound, and I have these intense rushes of fear when I perceive danger of any kind. This heightened state of alert gets my mind thinking that it’s being accurate about all its thoughts. It gets my mind thinking that I “should” be afraid of everything that appears unexpectedly in front of me. It gets my mind thinking that I “should” react strongly to every perceived danger. It turns the volume waaaay up on my reactions, making mountains out of molehills, all the while telling my brain that this is how I’m “supposed” to react.

    But that’s not true. It’s the way I should react when I am facing down a danger like a stampeding elephant or running out of a burning house. It’s NOT the way I should react to the idea of stepping out of my house or interacting with strangers.

    The thing about anxiety is, it is convinced that it’s based on critical thinking and intelligent assessment of the world around me. It tells me that it’s keeping me safe from danger. It tells me that it’s a product of my mind doing its job — and doing it very well. But it’s not. It’s a product of my body (the stress hormones, adrenaline, etc.) that is turning the volume of my thoughts way up past where they really should be. And it’s justifying it all the while with this belief that the source of the alarm is in my head.

    Does that make sense?

    If not, let me know, and I’ll try again.

    Best

    BB

  8. BB,

    That made a lot of sense. I definitely experience the hypersensitivity on a regular basis, and I become overreactive to almost everything. It can be very hard to “come down” when I feel like that, because the oversensitivity makes it easy to keep it going. If I pay attention when I’m in those states, I can see how it affects my thoughts and how I react to them easily, whereas when I’m more relaxed and my system is in a calmer state, I am less affected by everything and can think more clearly.

    I guess I had some confusion about your statement because it sounded like you were saying that the source of your anxiety was purely physical, and I feel like that is true some of the time, but that thoughts can get the ball rolling to begin with. Once it gets going, it becomes a snowball effect with bodily functions influencing thoughts and vice versa. Other times, however, there seems to be no preceding thoughts – like the fear system is just plain out of whack by itself for physical reasons.

    Good explanation and again, thanks for responding.

    -Aaron

  9. Aaron –

    Sure thing. There are a number of things you can do to chill out your sympathetic nervous system. Stimulating the vagus nerve (by deep, slow breathing… singing… holding your breath… even rubbing your neck near the carotid artery) can help. What helps me, is when I remember that what I’m thinking and feeling could be amplified by what’s going on in my body (as well as my head) and it might all be getting away from me. So, I need to chill.

    Eating something can also help… so long as it’s not a lot of sugar and junk. That just tweaks me all the more.

    Cheers
    BB

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  12. Thanks for sharing this info on the vagus nerve. I’ve been getting this hot feeling in my face, but I don’t have a fever. I did some brief research on google and found that it could be something to do with the vagus nerve. Makes much sense to me, since I have a history of anxiety. My anxiety is not as bad, but it still comes along in mild doses. My best guess is that the hot feeling is one of those mild doses. Again thank you :)

  13. I can control my vagus nerve at will, is that rare or odd. I simply stand up and make a stretching gesture and push my body really hard to the extent I black out for a few seconds, but am still standing during this black outs, occasionally I do fall to my knee. This as been going on for years. I feel absolutely amazing after doing it, like cleansed and powerful at the same time, but it only lasts for few minutes. Just felt to share this no biggie, anyone else experience the same thing.

  14. That’s very interesting. That kind of stretching is similar to something that certain esoteric Eastern traditions teach as a way to increase your longevity. I will try this. I don’t want to black out, as I might hurt myself, but I am interested in seeing if it affects me at all.

    Thanks for sharing.

  15. Interested to see if the stretching helped you, BB. I’m not wanting to delve into the eastern religious practices but do want to heal my vagus nerve as naturally as possible. Would love to hear your experience. Thanks.

  16. I did try the stretching, and I have the same sense of blacking out. I don’t actually feel cleansed and powerful afterwards, just slightly “rebooted). I have been doing a fair amount of stretching, especially before bed, and it is helping me to relax and get ready to sleep.

    Slow, steady, balanced breathing – 5 seconds to breathe in and 5 seconds to breathe out – has been recommended to me, and I think there is something to it. It balances our fight-flight with our rest-digest (vagus-related) systems, and it’s something we can do simply and easily – and for free.

    Good luck with your healing :)

  17. Thanks for the info. I’ve been living with shortness of breath for the last four years – daily!
    You describe breathing until you feel it fill the lungs and press up on the inside of the chest cavity. This is what I insatiably crave every few minutes. I may get an urge to breathe deeply but for some reason my chest will freeze or hold so that I don’t experience relief. I can’t feel that stretch or chest open up and feel calm when I want to. It’s very temperamental. My heart rate suffers as a result too – pounding ever so slowly and getting light headed.
    I figure it has to be vagus nerve related since I strain to yawn and breathe deep to the point of gagging. Sounds weird and awful because it is. Gag reflex is also vagus nerve controlled.
    What can I do to get my chest feel relief and stop air hunger when breathing seems to be the problem? The only time I feel somewhat ok is on waking late morning when my body has gone through a night of restless sleep into a short lived and enjoyed calm.

  18. Hey Ben,

    Sorry to hear about your shortness of breath. You could try a couple of things — first, breathe in for a count of three, and then out for a count of six. Longer exhalation stimulates the rest/digest side of our nervous system. It might make you feel calmer.

    Another thing that I discovered is something I learned from a network chiropractor – pressing points in the back of the neck — in the hollow space under the base of the skull, between the two muscles on either side. Press lightly for a few seconds at different spots in the neck – you don’t have to press hard or very long. You may feel some relief — it makes me relax and makes me feel like I can breathe again. Network chiropractic is something I found very helpful a few years ago – my insurance stopped covering me and I ran out of money, so I had to stop, but it did help me a lot. It’s not “crack your back” type of chiro, it’s based on releasing blocked areas in your spine — mostly in your neck and lower back — and retraining your nervous system to communicate better.

    I swear by it, and I wish I could go back — maybe when I change jobs and am closer to that office, I can do it, but right now it’s too far away for me and too expensive (I’m pretty poor right now).

    You could also do “belly breathing” where you get your oxygen from filling your lungs at the deepest point possible. Instead of breathing with your chest, focus on expanding your diaphragm and pulling air down into your lungs, with less of a focus on the chest area.

    There’s also exercise — maybe your body needs more oxygen, and getting your heart rate going might help.

    Another thing you can try, which is just a hunch (so don’t quote me on it and don’t sue me if it doesn’t work ;) is desensitizing yourself to that feeling — holding your breath for extended periods to become less sensitive to feeling like you’re not getting enough air. The idea is that when you are breathing normally, you’ll feel more like you’re getting the air you need…. and also you’re accustomed to the sense of not having enough air, and it doesn’t bother you.

    It sounds a little like you’re panicking (or your body is freaking out), when you have that feeling of not getting enough air. That will keep you in fight-flight mode, which cranks your system way up and puts you on edge, crowding out the benefits of the vagus nerve rest/digest response. At the very minimum, I’d recommend you invest some time each day in doing progressive relaxation or some other kind of conscious relaxation. Guided meditations work for some people, but they tend to irritate me. I don’t like people telling me what to do ;)

    Find what works for you and make a point of feeling better at least once a day for a few minutes. It could help — or at least make things more tolerable.

    Good luck – let us know how it’s going.

    Cheers
    BB

  19. This was a huge help to me and answered a lot of my questions, because of nerve issues, I have lost 20 years of my productivity to the stupidity of medical practice. I took control of my health and life a few years back and stopped certain treatments that were of no benefit to me. Suddenly sugar salt and water and now deep breathing explain my remedies. Anytime I did those
    most of my symptoms went away. The vagus nerve is never discussed by the doctor not because he/she doesn’t know what it is; quite the opposite I suppose because it would hurt our current medical system if Vagus Nerve/PNS knowledge really got out.

  20. I’m glad you found this helpful! It can be maddening dealing with the medical establishment, and it seems to me that sometimes they are more focused on not getting sued, than actually doing some substantial good. Of course, you’re no good to anyone, if you lose everything in a lawsuit, but there should be a happy medium.

    I’m glad to hear you’ve found something, that works for you. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most helpful.

    Be well

  21. Assorted thoughts. Regarding the human body, the general idea of organic nutrition (ideally) plus pure water (ideally) plus pure air (ideally ) plus blenders such as the Vitamix (using whole, fresh foods) is helpful (my view). Forks Over Knives (2011) film provides some insights into the large topic of modern (American) nutrition. The 12 pairs of cranial nerves are important (including the vagus nerve). The energy cycle of the brain/body is quite complicated. X-ref: Krebs Citric Acid Cycle/adrenal glands/pancreas/vagus nerve, etc. Also, there is a new idea called the Cerebellar Cognitive Affective Syndrome (see Wikipedia – article) which helps explain some subtle changes believed due to cerebellum brain injury. Coffee has been used to treat sleep apnea in infants. Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, but unlike many other psychoactive substances, it is legal and unregulated in nearly all parts of the world (source: Wikipedia – article). Here’s an illustrated article (shows the reticular formation of the brain) about some types of brain stem injuries: http://www.poliosurvivorsnetwork.org.uk/archive/lincolnshire/library/harvest/nyas.html Best wishes.

  22. Thank you for the information. I got about three hours of sleep last night (for a good reason — drove a friend to catch a flight in the wee hours of the morning), so I’m not firing on all pistons tonight. I’ll see if I can take a closer look in the next few days. Cerebellar injury is of interest to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever had one, but I find the cerebellum very intriguing.

    Thanks again.

  23. I have enjoyed reading all of your comments and others comments. The lovely good old Atlas Nerve Chiropractic term of the Vagus Nerve. I have been suffering with my vagus nerve for many years and have had alot of chiropractic work done on my neck. I was born with a straight neck so my vagus nerve tends to poke out and causes anxiety, panic attack, trouble concentrating, gagging uncontrollably while eating and trying to swallow. I was actually put on Lopressor for pvcs in my heart why because the doctors look at your like crazy when you say my Vagus nerve is not where it should be and this is what causes me to have these problems needless to say I was on that medication for about 4 years and still had heart palpitations. I recently took myself off of it. I have to watch lifting heavy things and yes relaxation and hot showers and breathing mediations are the only thing that can help. Absolutely NO STRESS!!! The vagus nerve after labor also is the culprit to women experiencing post-pardum ,,pre meditated doom,,suicidal thoughts all stem from the vagus nerve and spine not being properly aligned. I can go on and on lol, Again thanks for posting this site. I feel much better knowing that im not the only one with this problem.

  24. Thank you for sharing. I never heard of someone whose vagus nerve poked out from their neck. That is very interesting (for me – for you, I’m sure it has been difficult). Best of luck and good tips on how the vagus nerve can affect many aspects of our experience. Have a great day.

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