- The vagus nerve runs throughout your body and contributes to mood regulation, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.
- Experts say stimulating the vagus nerve can be an effective and accessible method of treating anxiety.
- Stimulating the vagus nerve can be as simple as humming or splashing cold water on the face.
Often referred to as the “wandering” nerve, the vagus nerve runs from the brainstem, through the neck, chest, and abdomen as our longest cranial nerve.
It carries messages between the brain, organs, and digestive system, and serves as a main part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for mood regulation, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.
Because of the vagus nerve’s role in the gut-brain axis, experts are paying attention to its potential for mitigating mood and managing conditions like anxiety and depression. Various forms of vagus nerve therapy or “toning” exist, but how effective are they?
The Vagus Nerve and Mental Health
Trauma specialist Valarie Harris, LPC-MHSP, works primarily with veterans dealing with PTSD or military sexual trauma (MST). She notes that individuals who’ve lived through trauma often experience an overactive vagus nerve, which can manifest as anxiety and irregular moods, as well as symptoms like nausea, bowel issues, and random pains.
Many specialists refer to polyvagal theory, which suggests that the vagus nerve plays a critical part in our response mechanisms to stress, such as the fight or flight response.
“The communication between your ‘first’ brain in your head and your ‘second’ brain in your gut is instantaneous,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, who refers to himself as a psychonutritionist. “The vagus nerve is how a stressful experience can make you feel sick to your stomach almost immediately and how having food poisoning can leave you feeling anxious.”
Shawn M. Talbott, PhD
The vagus nerve is how a stressful experience can make you feel sick to your stomach almost immediately and how having food poisoning can leave you feeling anxious.
Talbott runs mental wellness retreat 3 Waves Wellness, where he treats patients using a number of therapeutic modalities, including vagal nerve activation, also referred to as vagal toning. This involves stimulating the vagus nerve through gentle rhythmic pulses, which can be achieved through an implanted device or simple manual exercises like humming or deep breathing.
“You exercise the vagus nerve to improve its efficiency for sending signals,” Talbott says. “In a similar manner to how regular running exercises your leg muscles, making you a more efficient runner, the same is true for vagal toning.”
There are other ways to manually stimulate the vagus nerve. Videos have circulated on TikTok discussing vagus nerve icing, which requires plunging your face in ice water or holding ice on your chest. However, this isn’t always a safe option for people with certain health conditions. Harris points out that even splashing cold water on the face can be helpful.
For individuals with more severe irregularities, a device can be implanted that uses electrical pulses to tone the nerve. Harris uses a low energy neurofeedback system, or LENS, for individuals experiencing more severe symptoms.
“(It’s) different from traditional neurofeedback in that the goal is not training the brain, but rather allowing a person’s physiology to direct the course of treatment to support the body’s natural desire for homeostasis,” Harris says.
Does It Work?
Only small studies have been completed around vagus nerve stimulation for conditions like depression, headaches, and epilepsy, so research is still needed to know its true impact. But plenty of experts have seen positive results in their practice.
Susanna Harkonen, a registered counselor and clinical trauma professional in Switzerland, says the vagus nerve is at the core of her work with clients. While she notes that results vary, she considers polyvagal theory a game-changer for both herself and her practice.
Patients that have undergone vagal toning, especially with the Safe & Sound Protocol, which stimulates the vagus nerve through non-invasive listening therapy, have reported improvements in sleep and digestion, as well as equilibrium and performance of certain physical tasks, for some. Patients have also noted less rumination, better focus, and a greater ability to be proactive and speak their minds.
Susanna Harkonen, Clinical Trauma Professional
I have witnessed a positive impact on panic attacks, grief, anxiety, depression, depersonalization, sleeping disturbances, porous boundaries, and much more.
“I have witnessed a positive impact on panic attacks, grief, anxiety, depression, depersonalization, sleeping disturbances, porous boundaries, and much more,” Harkonen says.
Talbott has seen patients come away more relaxed and calm after as little as one session, but continued practice a few times a week can lead to noticeable improvement in stress resilience and overall mood, as well. He also notes that vagal toning can also be a good option for individuals with little time for other more involved therapeutic interventions, as it can be practiced at the same time as breath work and meditation.
Practicing vagal toning requires curiosity about the nervous system, Harkonen says, and this can lead to a greater sense of responsibility for our states of mind, as well as increased overall safety.
“The polyvagal theory takes away much of the shame and guilt that people feel about their less than constructive behaviors and reactions and enables real healing to take place,” she says. “It isn’t all in the mind!”
What This Means For You
While more research is needed, vagus nerve stimulation may be an effective and accessible method of stress and mood regulation. Speak with your doctor or a mental health professional to determine whether it’s a good option for you.
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