I’m a psychiatrist, and I love the Vagus Nerve, and you should too. It’s the unsung hero that doesn’t get its due acknowledgment. It’s an impressive thing, as it courses throughout almost the entire length of your body, from your brainstem down to your genitourinary system. And it’s a mighty nerve, as you can use this nerve as a powerful lever to counteract the stress that bombards us on a daily basis.
How? Because stress is mediated by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or “Fight or Flight” response. Although many have heard of the Fight or Flight response, most have not heard of its direct counterpart, the “Rest and Digest” response, controlled by the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
Every time you face a stressful situation (be it an angry bear or a global pandemic), your Fight or Flight response will kick off the stress response, which translates to a racing heart, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, and stress hormone surges in the body. This can lead to a sensation of stress, tension, or worry. However after the stressor is passed, your body needs to get back into a resting state, which is mediated by your Rest and Digest response, under the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
I mentioned that both these systems (SNS and PNS) are under the Autonomic Nervous System. It’s called Autonomic because all of this occurs automatically! You and I can’t tell our hearts to pound faster or to constrict or dilate our pupils. Our body is amazing in that these things happen automatically, in response to stress or the need to recover from stress.
However, there’s one way you can hack into this automatic response. It’s through the Vagus Nerve.
In the diagram below showing the underside of your diaphragm, you can see the Vagus Nerve peeking through the diaphragm, sitting next to your esophagus. The red circles are mine, highlighting the yellow vagus nerve. This is the entry point for you to take over your PNS, so that you can jumpstart your PNS, or your relaxation response.
All those times you were told to “take a deep breath” or do abdominal breathing in yoga or meditation? This is the anatomical reason why! If you expand your diaphragm through abdominal breathing, it will trigger your vagus nerve, which will then start the PNS cascade to start. This is your key to instant stress reduction.
The Vagus Nerve is also the mediator of a crucial cardiac marker called Heart Rate Variability, which is now getting super trendy for CEOs and elite athletes, as this allows for peak performance, both physically and cognitively. But that’s a topic for next time.
In the meantime, focus on your abdominal breathing, engage your vagus nerve, and reduce your stress!