Parasympathetic Stimulation: How to Improve Your Vagal Tone
Stress is a part of life we all experience, perhaps on a somewhat regular basis. Our nervous system responds to stress by going into a sympathetic state (the “fight or flight” response) or a dorsal vagal state (otherwise known as “freeze”). These are healthy, normal responses to stress—unless we respond this way to the same stressors day after day and become mired in a state of anxiety or depression.
Once you’re stuck, it can feel impossible to access that parasympathetic state of restorative calm. But there are daily practices that can improve your vagal tone. You can learn how to escape chronic stress by engaging the ventral branch of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s “rest and digest” functions. This system centers around the vagus nerve, which acts as an access point that you can use to send your body signals of safety.
What Is Vagal Tone?
Vagal tone refers to the health of your vagus nerve, which is actually two nerves that wander the length of your body (vagus is Latin for wandering). These nerves connect the brain to the gut, stopping by a number of other places on the way, including your ears, heart, lungs, and stomach. The vagus nerve is crucial to healing, maintaining healthy levels of inflammation, proper intestinal function, and overall energy. It also regulates the functions of many internal organs, including heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate.
When functioning properly, the vagus nerve modulates inflammation by initiating the release of anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters, thereby preventing chronic inflammation. Poor vagal tone is associated with anxiety, depression, and trouble paying attention. High vagal tone is associated with increased resilience to stress and overall wellbeing.
8 Signs of Chronic Stress & Poor Vagal Tone
- You avoid making eye contact with other people
- Your breath is shallow or you find yourself holding your breath
- Your brow is often furrowed
- You often clench your jaw or purse your lips
- You feel frozen, stuck, or hopeless
- You feel restless and fidgety
- You have trouble sleeping
- You feel irritable or easily startled
Moving Between Sympathetic & Parasympathetic States
The vagus nerve has two distinct parts, dorsal (back) and ventral (front). The dorsal vagal system helps the body move between its sympathetic and parasympathetic states. But if the body becomes too stressed, the dorsal vagus can go into overdrive, locking the body into a protective “freeze” response that’s often labeled as depression.
The ventral vagus is newer (evolutionarily speaking) and found only in mammals. It’s closely linked to the parts of the brain that control facial expression and vocalization. It’s also the part of the vagus nerve responsible for regulating your heart rate. When you are feeling safe and connected, your body is in a ventral state.
Vagus nerve stimulation reduces inflammation. It has the potential to alleviate the symptoms of autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases, psychiatric conditions such as chronic anxiety or depression, and even gastrointestinal disorders such as IBD. It can also strengthen memory, reduce headaches, and alleviate allergies.
6 Practices to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
You can stimulate your vagus nerve by slowing your breathing down to half its normal rate, from about a dozen breaths each minute to just five or six. Try slowing your breathing down to a four-second inhale and an eight-second exhale.
Various yogic breathing techniques have been shown to alleviate anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post-traumatic stress, and stress-related medical illnesses. One type of yogic breathing called ujjayi constricts the throat and stimulates the inner ear; both places connect to the vagus nerve, making ujjayi pranayama particularly effective at increasing vagal tone.
The ventral vagus is activated through social engagement. Connecting with people who help you feel safe is vital to emerging from a state of dorsal vagal shutdown. Time with loved ones, eye contact, and conversation are all crucial to our wellbeing.
Touch is particularly powerful. Anything from a long massage to a hug from a loved one can be enormously helpful in engaging your parasympathetic nervous system. The late Dr. David Schnarch advocated “hugging until relaxed,” an exercise in which both people stand on their own two feet (no hanging on the other person) and hug until they feel calm. You can also practice self-massage for downregulation.
The vagus nerve connects to the vocal cords, so anything that moves your vocal cords has the potential to improve vagal tone. Gargling is a popular nervous system hack for this reason, and laughing is wonderfully effective. Even speaking, whether in conversation with another person or venting alone, can help bring your nervous system into balance.
Singing (particularly singing together with other people—there’s that connection piece again) has a powerful effect on heart rate variability, which is the primary measure of vagal tone. Singing releases oxytocin and promotes a feeling of joy and well-being.
Humming works as well, or the classic “OM” that you’ll hear during most yoga classes. If you happen to play a wind instrument, that’s another effective way to stimulate your vagus nerve.
4. Cold Therapy
Cold water has been a popular therapy since the time of Hippocrates.
According to one study, routine exposure to cold temperatures “lowers sympathetic activation and causes a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity.”
Cold showers have documented benefits that range from relief from depression to fewer sick days. Participants in the study who ended their shower with 90 seconds of cold water (as opposed to 30 or 60) experienced the greatest benefits. Try starting with five seconds and working your way up each day.
Even a splash of cold water on your face can help. Submerging your face in water (or simulating this by using a cool washcloth or water in your two cupped hands) can slow your heart rate and increase blood flow to your brain, helping your whole body to relax.
Meditation—particularly loving-kindness meditation—has myriad benefits that all complement each other in an “upward spiral” effect. In one study, everyone who attended a six-week loving-kindness meditation course experienced both increased vagal tone and overall better moods. Participants who had better vagal tone to begin with reported more drastic increases in positive emotion than their cohort.
Mindfulness-based meditations have been shown to alleviate depression, anxiety, pain, and even improve the overall worldview of people suffering from chronic pain.
6. Mindful Movement
Mindful forms of exercise such as tai chi and yoga have been shown to have particularly beneficial effects on mood, even more so than metabolically matched exercise such as walking. These forms of mindful movement increase vagal tone. Any form of exercise is beneficial, so the additional benefit of practices such as yoga might be explained by their emphasis on deep, regular breathing.
People who practice yoga regularly have a higher vagal tone at rest than nonpractitioners. One study found that three months of yoga were effective in increasing parasympathetic tone and decreasing symptoms of depression and stress in women suffering from depression. You can find free Vagus Nerve Yoga videos on YouTube courtesy of Dr. Arielle Schwartz.
- by Shayla Cherry