Intimately connected to our adaptability, particularly to stress, is the vagus nerve⸺the longest cranial nerve of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and one of the most vital nerves in the human body. Also known as the 10th cranial nerve or CN X, the vagus nerve is a bundle of sensory and motor-containing fiber nerves originating in the brain stem and spreading down through the neck and thorax into the abdomen.
Thus, it has the most far-reaching distribution within the body, integrating fully into our neurological and physical matrix while helping us monitor multiple aspects of our physiology. Thought of as the ultimate mind-body superhighway, the vagus nerve enables information to flow from and to the brain through vagal pathways. From blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion to offering us deep relaxation and an overall sense of visceral calmness, the vagus (wandering in Latin) nerve not only boosts up the involuntary nervous system but communicates motor and sensory impulses to every organ throughout the body.
Finally, and most importantly, via the vagus nerve, we respond to signals in our surroundings that eases, warns, or dysregulates the organism, creating an emotional experience that undeviatingly alters our behavior and internal environment at large. When it comes to stress and relaxation, the vagus nerve functions as a neutral pause that allows us to feel open, social, and relaxed when entered into a state of homeostasis or “inner steadiness.” Yet, when faced with high alertness, defensiveness, or perceived threat situations, the vagal circuitry fires up the so-called stress response, flooding the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into the body and priming us to flee, fight, or move into complete shutdown.
While stress and a healthy bodily response to danger are indispensable to our human survival, the good news is that there are numerous nourishing approaches to restore balance, regain behavioral flexibility, and bring the organism back to a state of inward tranquility when necessary. Below, a few mind-body practices to help you tone your vagus nerve, deactivate your stress response, and gently shift your body space back into healing mode:
From mindful body awareness and dynamic postures (or asanas) to breath rhythm techniques, yoga is one of the top epitomes of mind-body well-being and an excellent vehicle for regulating the functioning of your vagus nerve. Yoga poses, specifically, can help stimulate and incite the areas of the body that involve vagal tone and activity⸺think chest, heart, lungs, spine, throat, and abdomen, to name a few.
Simple seated, prone, or supine yoga movements, for example, can create an optimal balance in your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, empowering you to foster resilience, counterbalance any over-stimulation, and feel better overall.
It’s no surprise that slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing has been at the heart of countless ancient traditions around the globe for millennia. But beyond influencing our mental, emotional, and physical states, breathing also has the power to activate vagal pathways that help offset the stress response, lower the heart rate, and incite overall relaxation.
To breathe deeply from your diaphragm, try inhaling slowly through both nostrils, pulling the breath toward the stomach. To exhale, tighten the abdominal muscles and let your belly drop down while exhaling through pursed lips (the chest should remain still). If possible, give yourself time to practice this breathing technique for 6-10 minutes at a time.
Find Your Center In Nature
Fully absorbing the natural world with our senses is a beautiful way to balance our nervous system, give ourselves a “reset,” and find groundedness in the present moment. Find a taste, aroma, or visual in your surroundings that call your attention and let your awareness drop into the moment and your authentic truth. Nature’s wisdom and re-newness are always present, waiting for us to soak it up and distill it into our daily lives for increased emotional, mental, and physical well-being.