Biohacking The Vagus Nerve: A Stress Management Tool

Melissa Martin, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Certified Pilates Instructor |

The last year of surviving a global pandemic has radically changed life as we know it. We do most everything different now and have had many changes to adjust to all at once. It is no surprise that we are all collectively experiencing higher levels of stress as we cope with these changes. Mental health decline, substance abuse, and insomnia are all on the rise. It can sometimes feel impossible to control our stress levels when we are caught up in the heat of the moment. That’s where learning about and biohacking the vagus nerve is your secret weapon.

Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

Our nervous systems function in one of two states: our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Sympathetic is what is known as our “flight or fight”. It was what we experience in times of high stress or when we feel our safety is threatened. It’s basically our survival mode. This is wonderful when we need to quickly jump out of the way to dodge a car about to hit us, getting chased by a tiger, or fight back if physically attacked. The cortisol and adrenaline pumping through your body will literally save your life and serves a very important function. The problem with prolonged stress is that we can get stuck in this mode. Once we start operating our day to day lives from this place, it can be very hard to simply shift out of. Everything feels like an emergency and we are constantly on high alert. During this experience, your digestion shuts down and blood rushes to your limbs in addition to heart and respiration rate increasing so you can run or fight. If you find yourself here, the goal is to learn techniques (that we will discuss today) to shift into your parasympathetic system.

The parasympathetic system is also coined as our “rest and digest” state. This is what causes the relaxation response in our bodies. Even if our sympathetic system gets triggered, we want to return to our parasympathetic system as soon as possible. Digestion kicks in again, and heart and respiration rates also decrease for the better. You will even be able to think better and more clearly, processing information from the frontal lobe where we can reason and make better decisions. When we operate from this place, we are happier, relaxed, and ready to handle anything life throws at us.

What Is The Vagus Nerve?

In a nutshell, the vagus nerve is the longest running nerve in your body and acts as the body’s communication super highway. It is actual a pair of nerves extending from the brain to the rest of the body sending and collecting information from the brain to digestion and internal organs. It also controls the parasympathetic response system, the rest and digest state, contrary to the sympathetic- the fight or flight response system. Since the vagus nerve is what unlocks the body’s relaxation response, it would be wise how to harness this to our advantage.

How To Activate The Vagus Nerve

The fastest and most effective way to activate the vagus nerve and thus triggering a relaxation response (the parasympathetic system), is deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing. Research has shown that this helps to modulate the mind and body for both stress management and even lowing inflammation in the body. The best way to do this is to lay on your back, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Inhale deeply from your belly while keeping your chest as still as possible, using your hands to guide you correctly. You want to focus on exhaling longer than your inhale, as exhaling is what helps trigger the relaxation response. You can inhale/exhale to any count, just make sure you hold for one second at the end of the inhale and exhale for longer. It has been shown that doing this for 5-10 minutes is all the time needed to shift your mind and body into a relaxed state. This is such a simple yet proven effective strategy that you can do anytime you feel stress increasing.

I highly recommend the website for a free visual breathing exercise. Set the controls however you like, however, a good starting place is to inhale for 4 counts, hold for 2 counts, exhale for 6 counts. Practicing this technique at last two times per day will help to regulate your system enough to keep you in the relaxation state longer and be able to shift into it faster when times of high stress hit