The vagal nerve has been instrumental in the management of mental health. The vagus nerve–only found in mammals–is a nerve that connects the brainstem and the body to assist in relaxation and regulation. Read on to learn more about how stimulating the vagal nerve is linked to the betterment of our mental health.
What Is The Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the human body. It connects the brain to many vital organs in the body, including the gut (hence the saying, ‘gut feeling’), heart and lungs. In Latin, ‘vagus’ is translated as the ‘wanderer’. This reflects the nature of the nerve wandering through the body.
Where Is The Vagus Nerve Located?
The vagus nerve is a key part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It helps to regulate breathing, heart rate and digestive function, which are all imperative to the overall function of our mental health.
The autonomic nervous system is composed of two divisions—the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulating the body into action (ie. ‘fight or flight’) whereas the latter has the opposite effect of slowing down our body and returning it to a calm and relaxed state, which in turn aids digestion (ie. ‘rest and digest’).
The vagus nerve sends information from the major organs of the body to the brain for interpretation. When the body is fighting inflammation, the brain then sends messages back to the organs for combat.
Ways To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is stimulated by feelings of compassion and empathy. A person with a healthy vagal nerve profile tends to be more willing to sacrifice their time for someone else. The vagus nerve is activated when a person sees an image of suffering or struggle whereas the nerve’s response diminishes when a person sees an image of pride or self-success.
The gut is also an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system as the vagus nerve manages our fears, stress and anxiety. The vagus nerve sends messages from the gut to the brain when we are faced with scary or stressful situations to help ease the burden.
There is such a thing as ‘vagal tone’, which refers to how quick the parasympathetic nervous system responds after being faced with stress. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that reflects the functioning of the vagus nerve.
When we have a higher vagal tone, it means the body can relax quicker after the fight or flight response has been activated. Naturally, our vagal response reduces with age and some people have a higher vagal tone than others and are able to relax faster after anxious situations. When a person has a low vagal tone it means the nerve is not functioning to its optimal level and may lead to a heightened stress response. This can result in depression, anxiety, digestive issues and inflammation to name a few.
Resetting The Vagal Nerve
When confronted with trauma, a chronic illness or anxiety, the functioning of the vagal nerve is an important area during therapy that can indicate how readily a person can relax. There are some methods that incorporate stimulating the vagal nerve with the use of sound and tone to help the body reach a state of calm.
The Safe and Sound Protocol
Our nervous system uses tone of voice as a way to determine safety. The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a five-hour program designed to return the body to a ventral vagal state (ie. ‘happy and relaxed’). The SSP uses prosodic (‘rise and fall’ of the human voice) music that has been curated to train the neural network associated with listening.
For more information, see How the Safe and Sound Protocol is Delivered.
When we breathe in, the heart beats faster to pump oxygenated blood around the body. As we breathe out, the heart rate slows down and helps to relax the body. A higher vagal tone is usually associated with a lower heart rate. Deep breathing with a focus on extending the out breath can be an effective tool when faced with danger, stress or alarm as the vagus nerve springs into action.
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