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Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises for Anxiety and Stress Relief

Seated meditation pose for relaxation

The vagus nerve is the behind-the-scenes hero of the body, quietly keeping everything in check without us noticing. Many involuntary and vital bodily functions, such as heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, swallowing, digestion, sneezing, speech, urination, hearing, taste, muscular sensations, hormone production, immune system functioning, mood, and more, are regulated by the vagus nerve.  


The word ‘vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering.’ The vagus nerve is commonly referred to as the “wanderer” as it’s the longest of the 12 cranial nerves, wandering from your brainstem all the way to your large intestine. 


Not only does the vagus nerve regulate essential bodily processes, but it also regulates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, commonly called the “rest-and-digest” division of the nervous system. In other words, stimulating the vagus nerve can elicit the relaxation response when the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight-or-flight” system, has been activated. In addition to this, exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve are useful when we find ourselves in a “freeze” state, or a dorsal vagal shutdown. 


Participating in exercises designed to stimulate the vagus nerve can improve the function of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Your vagal tone can improve as you explore exercises aimed at bringing you into a rest-and-digest state. Vagal tone represents the health of your vagus nerve. When your vagal tone is higher, you're better equipped to respond to and recover from stressful situations. This higher tone helps build resilience in your nervous system, allowing you to move between sympathetic and parasympathetic states with greater ease and flexibility. This flexibility is imperative because it prevents us from getting stuck in prolonged states of stress or shutdown.


Table of Contents

What is the Vagus Nerve?


The vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve or cranial nerve X, is the longest nerve of all the cranial nerves. It begins its journey in the brainstem and extends all the way down to your large intestine.


The vagus nerve travels bilaterally, running down both sides of your body. The vagus nerve begins in the medulla oblongata, located in the lower part of the brain. From there, it connects to the spinal cord, and then splits off into branches that extend down your neck, through your chest, around your lungs and heart, through your abdomen, as well as your digestive tract. Along its path, the vagus nerve innervates and influences many vital organs, even playing a role in the function and sensation of your facial muscles and ears. 


The vagus nerve contains both sensory and motor fibers, with approximately 80% of its fibers being sensory. This tells us that the vagus nerve is responsible for both movement and sensations experienced throughout the body. 


The vagus nerve carries important signals and messages between the brain, heart, and gut. For this reason, the vagus nerve is commonly referred to as the “body’s communication highway,” facilitating the exchange of information from the brain to the gut, and vice versa. Without a doubt, the vagus nerve serves as an essential link in our mind-body communication system.


Seated neck stretch for vagus nerve stimulation

Why is the Vagus Nerve Important?


Dr. Stephen Porges, the founder of the polyvagal theory, divides the nervous system into three states: the ventral vagal, the sympathetic, and the dorsal vagal.


When we find ourselves in the ventral state, we are more open to social engagement and connection with others because we feel safe both in mind and body. It’s a state where your body feels calm, relaxed, open, and connected.


The sympathetic state, or fight-or-flight response, is an essential response for our safety and survival. When the sympathetic state is activated, it increases heart rate, respiratory rate, muscular tension, and slows digestion down, with the goal of mobilizing the body to either fight or flee what your brain perceives as “dangerous” based on input from the vagus nerve. 


Interestingly, the sympathetic state can be triggered even when you’re not in any danger. Daily stressors such as writing an email, commuting to and from work, strong emotions, loud noises, certain scents, overhearing an argument, waiting in a long line, or seeing a spider on TV, can trigger the fight-or-flight response.


Many of us find ourselves stuck in sympathetic activation because slowing down to take stock of what’s happening internally doesn’t feel like a safe option. Often, slowing down is viewed as a threat to productivity and success, which can affect our sense of self-worth.


Prolonged sympathetic activation can lead to chronic muscular tension, pain, headaches, migraines, dizziness, vertigo, illness, fatigue, and more.


It’s important to note that a combination of sympathetic and ventral activation is beneficial for certain activities like exercise, playing sports, or household chores. A sprinkle of sympathetic activation helps mobilize both the mind and body for various tasks and playful activities. 


The dorsal vagal component of the nervous system is commonly known as a “freeze” response, which causes your nervous system to enter a “shutdown” response. This shutdown state can manifest as feelings of numbness, lethargy, hopelessness, or depression.  


The vagus nerve isn't just responsible for regulating essential bodily functions like digestion, immune system functioning, as well as heart and breathing regulation, it also plays an important role in nervous system regulation. Stimulating the vagus nerve can shift us from a heightened sympathetic state to the parasympathetic ventral vagal state, cultivating feelings of calm, safety, social engagement, and connection.


Regularly stimulating the vagus nerve may enhance your ability to connect with others. This is because the vagus nerve influences our facial expressions and vocal tone, both important aspects of social interactions.


Learning how to stimulate the vagus nerve can serve as a valuable self-regulation tool. So, when you’re feeling off balance, overwhelmed, anxious, stressed out, numb, or disconnected, exploring techniques to activate the parasympathetic branch of your vagus nerve can guide you towards a ventral vagal state, fostering feelings of calm, connection and safety.


The following vagus nerve exercises offer relief from stress and anxiety, and can easily be practiced in the comfort of your home.


Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises


1. Establishing Safety with the Eyes


A woman in a seated position with her head and eyes turned to the right to establish safety and to stimulate the vagus nerve

To tap into the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, it’s important to cultivate a felt sense of inner safety. How can we expect to feel calm, connected, and at ease when we don’t feel safe within our own bodies? 


The following exercise aims to send reassuring messages of safety to your nervous system. The exercise involves gentle movements of your eyes and neck, inviting feelings of safety as you scan your environment for evidence of comfort and safety.


As you stimulate the vagus nerve, you may notice an urge to yawn, sigh, swallow, or deepen your breath. These bodily responses indicate that you’re shifting from a sympathetic state to parasympathetic activation.


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable seat of your choosing, either sitting on the ground or on a chair. 

  2. Slowly turn your head to the right, letting your eyes scan your surroundings. Observe the objects in your space.

  3. Stay in a range of motion that feels good in your body.

  4. Once your head and eyes are facing towards the right, move your eyes to the right-hand corners of their sockets for a moment so that you're looking behind you. 

  5. Relax your jaw muscles.

  6. Take two to three breaths in this position.

  7. When you feel ready, slowly bring your eyes back to center. 

  8. Slowly move your head back to center, as your eyes continue to scan your space.

  9. Slowly turn your head to face towards the left.

  10. Once you’re in a range that feels good for your neck, move your eyes to the left-hand corners of their sockets, gazing towards the back of your room and past your left shoulder.

  11. Take two to three cycles of breath here.

  12. Slowly bring your eyes back to center before moving your head back to center. 

  13. Pause here for a moment, breathing in and out. 

  14. Sense how this exercise felt in your body.


2. Establishing Safety with Self-Soothing Touch


A woman lying on her back with one hand on resting on the base of the skull and the other hand resting on the forehead

Self-soothing touch is another technique that can help cultivate feelings of safety and connection. In this exercise, one hand gently rests on the base of your skull, where your brainstem resides and the vagus nerve begins. Meanwhile, your other hand gently rests on your forehead. Later on in the exercise, you may choose to move this hand to your heart space. This gentle touch is a way to communicate safety to your mind and body, inviting feelings of calm and relaxation.


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable posture of your choosing, either lying down on your back or sitting.

  2. Gently place one hand on the back of your head, cradling the base of your skull.

  3. Place your other hand on your forehead, allowing your palm to gently cup your forehead. 

  4. Soften through your jaw and your shoulders.

  5. Soften your focus or close your eyes.

  6. Sense your hand on the back of your head, noting how it feels to have your hand supporting this area. 

  7. Sense your hand resting on your forehead, observing the temperature of your hand. 

  8. Visualize a rainbow, string, or bridge connecting these two parts.

  9. Once this connection is established, explore sending your breath between these two points of contact. 

  10. Remain here for 1 to 2 minutes.

  11. You can choose to move the hand resting on your forehead to your heart space. 

  12. Repeat the same sequence of events, establishing connection between your brainstem and your heart space. 

  13. Visualize the energy flowing between these two points of contact.

  14. Remain here for 1 to 2 minutes. 

  15. Release your arms to your sides.

  16. Take a moment to sense how this self-soothing touch felt in your body.


3. Alternate Nostril Breathing


A woman practicing alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a breathwork practice that can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your breath, calming racing thoughts, and anchoring you to the present moment. Alternate nostril breathing balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain, aiding in nervous system regulation. This breathwork practice can build nervous system resiliency over time as your brain practices what it feels like to return to a state of calm and relaxation.


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable seat of your choosing, either sitting on the ground or on a chair. 

  2. Lengthen through your spine. 

  3. Turn your attention to your breath, allowing your breath to flow in and out with ease for a moment. 

  4. Rest your left hand gently on your thigh.

  5. Bring your right hand to your face, resting your right index finger and middle finger on your forehead between your eyebrows. 

  6. Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  7. Close your right nostril with your right thumb. 

  8. Breathe in through your left nostril. 

  9. Hold your breath at the top of your inhalation for a brief moment, as you close your left nostril with your right ring finger. 

  10. Release your thumb, opening your right nostril. 

  11. Breathe out through your right nostril. 

  12. Keeping your left nostril closed, breathe in through your right nostril.

  13. Hold the breath at the top for a brief moment as you close your right nostril with your thumb. 

  14. Release your left nostril, and breathe out through the left nostril. 

  15. Continue for 5 to 10 rounds. 

  16. Once you feel ready, release your right hand to your thigh. 

  17. Breathe in through both nostrils, and breathe out through both nostrils. 

  18. Observe how you feel following this breathwork practice.


4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation


A woman lying on her back with clenched fists practicing progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is a somatic technique that involves intentionally tensing muscle groups on the breath in, and then releasing that tension on the breath out.


In a state of fight-or-flight, our bodies instinctively heighten muscular tension, preparing us to respond to danger or potential threats. While tension serves a purpose in times of danger or during physical activities like sports, chronic sympathetic activation can lead to sustained muscular tension. Over time, your brain learns to keep muscles chronically tense as a safety measure, regardless of whether a real threat is present. 


PMR stimulates the vagus nerves, helping you shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic activation. Progressive muscle relaxation informs your brain that it’s safe to release muscular tension, eliciting the relaxation response. 


PMR promotes nervous system regulation, lowers heart rate and respiratory rate, can improve sleep quality, and can offer relief from chronic pain. 


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable position, either lying down on your back or sitting on a chair. 

  2. Sense your connection to the surface beneath you, noting points of contact. 

  3. Observe your breath for a moment, exploring a natural rhythm. 

  4. To help turn your attention inward, either soften your focus or close your eyes.

  5. On your inhale, curl your toes and the soles of your feet in, creating tension.

  6. Hold this state of tension for a couple of seconds. 

  7. Slowly exhale through your mouth as you gradually release the tension from your feet, completely relaxing through the soles of your feet and your toes. 

  8. Pause for a moment to take note of what it feels like to relax your feet. 

  9. Direct your attention to your calves. If you’re lying down, point your toes away from your body to tense your calf muscles on your breath in. If you’re sitting on a chair, slowly lift your heels off of the ground to contract your calf muscles.

  10. Hold this state of tension for a couple of seconds. 

  11. Slowly exhale through your mouth as you gently release this state of tension. 

  12. Pause here for a moment, sensing how it feels in your body to relax your calves.

  13. Repeat this same sequence for each muscle group, moving up your body.

  14. Once this exercise feels complete to you, explore what full body muscular relaxation feels like as you allow your breath to flow in and out with ease.


5. The Basic Exercise


A woman on her back with fingers interlaced and hands resting against the base of the skull for the salamander exercise

The Basic Exercise, created by Stanley Rosenberg, is designed to alleviate tension in the brainstem, positively impacting the vagus nerve. This exercise aims to realign C1 and C2 vertebrae in the cervical spine (neck), enhancing mobility in the neck. This exercise can improve blood flow to the brainstem. This improved blood flow nourishes the five cranial nerves necessary for social connection, including the vagus nerve. 


Please note that it's common to feel a bit light-headed after this exercise. If this occurs, place your hands on your heart space. Take gentle breaths in through your nose and softly exhale through your mouth for a few rounds.  


You can explore the Basic Exercise in this Yoga for Vagus Nerve Stimulation practice.


How To: 

  1. Find a comfortable position of your choosing, either lying down on your back or sitting down. 

  2. If you’re on your back, bend at your knees, placing the soles of your feet on your mat. 

  3. Interlace your fingers, gently placing your hands at the base of your skull. 

  4. Extend your thumbs down your neck. 

  5. Direct your attention to the sensation of your hands on the back of your head for a moment.

  6. Keep your head facing towards the ceiling if you’re lying down, or facing directly forward if you’re in a seated position, as you very slowly move your eyes to the right corners of your eye sockets (or to a place that feels comfortable for you). 

  7. Hold here for a moment, breathing in and out. 

  8. Stay here until the relaxation response kicks in. The relaxation response could be a sigh, swallow, yawn, or a deeper breath. This can take several seconds, or up to a minute.

  9. When your body signals that it’s ready, slowly move your eyes back to center.

  10. Pause for a moment to sense how that exercise felt in your body. 

  11. When you feel ready, slowly move your eyes to the left corners of your sockets (or to a place that feels comfortable). 

  12. Allow your breath to flow in and out with ease.

  13. When you sigh, swallow, deepen your breath, or yawn, slowly move your eyes back to center. 

  14. Sense how you feel. 

  15. When you feel ready, release the bind with your hands, placing your hands by your sides. 

  16. If you’re resting on your back, slowly lower your knees to the right side, rolling onto your side. In your own time, press yourself up to a seat on your mat.

  17. Observe how you feel following this exercise.


6. Sphinx Pose with Vagus Nerve Activation


A woman in sphinx pose

Sphinx Pose is a gentle backbend that opens the chest and stimulates the abdominal organs. This variation provides a gentle stretch along the sides of the neck, specifically stretching the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles. The vagus nerve runs behind the SCM and just in front of the scalene muscles. This gentle neck stretch can release tension in these neck muscles, freeing up the vagus nerve to activate the rest-and-digest response.


How To:

  1. From a tabletop position, slowly lower yourself onto your belly. 

  2. Extend your legs out long, grounding through the tops of your feet. 

  3. Rock your pelvis forward to deepen the connection of your pubic bone with the ground.

  4. Place your forearms on your mat, stacking your elbows under your shoulders. 

  5. Keep forearms parallel to each other. 

  6. Press into all that’s connected to the earth, as you gently lift your chest. 

  7. Relax your shoulders away from your ears as you gently draw your shoulder blades closer together.

  8. Tuck your chin in slightly to invite length through the back of your neck. 

  9. Take a few breaths here, feeling the expansion of your belly on the inhale and the softening on the exhale. 

  10. When you feel ready, turn your head to the right, gazing past your right shoulder (explore in a comfortable range). 

  11. Breathe into the left side of your neck. 

  12. Stay in this position until the relaxation response kicks in–a sigh, swallow, a deeper breath, or a yawn. This may take a few seconds to a minute. 

  13. Slowly turn your head back to center.

  14. Repeat this sequence on the other side. 

  15. Once this exercise feels complete, release your chest to the ground, and place your hands under your shoulders. 

  16. Tuck your toes under, engage your core, and press into the ground as you slowly return to all fours. 

  17. Transition to a comfortable seat, and take a moment to notice how you feel.


7. Extended Child's Pose with Humming


A woman in extended child's pose

Given the vagus nerve’s path along both sides of the neck and its connection to the muscles of the throat and vocal cords, activities like humming, singing, gargling, and chanting can effectively stimulate it. Whether you’re singing along to your favorite song in the car, gargling saltwater, humming a tune during your walk, incorporating these practices into your daily routine can improve your vagal tone. 


Explore humming like a bee in Extended Child’s Pose. Extended child’s pose is a gentle restorative yoga pose that invites you to turn your focus inward. Humming while in this pose can be very calming, sending signals of safety to your nervous system.


How To:

  1. Begin in a tabletop position on your mat or on a soft surface, like a carpeted area. 

  2. Bring your big toes together, then walk your knees wider than hip-distance apart.

  3. Sit back towards your heels as you gently reach your hands forward. 

  4. Breathe in through your nose, and on your breath out, slowly release your upper body closer towards the surface beneath you. 

  5. Lower your forehead to the ground, or onto stacked hands or a yoga block. 

  6. Allow your hands, arms, shoulders and upper back body to relax into this posture. 

  7. Observe your breath for a moment. 

  8. Breathe in through your nose, and on your breath out, explore a humming sound (similar to a bee buzzing). 

  9. Notice the gentle vibrations spreading through your nasal cavities, jaw, neck, and shoulders as you hum.  

  10. You can explore this humming breath for a few more rounds. 

  11. When you feel ready, allow your breath to return to a natural breathing pattern. 

  12. Press into your foundation, lifting your forehead away from the surface, and slowly come back to all fours.

  13. Transition to a comfortable seat of your choosing as you soak in the benefits of this practice. 


8. Vagus Nerve Massage


A woman massaging her ears to stimulate the vagus nerve

This vagus nerve massage is good for stimulating the ventral vagal system, or our social engagement state. This massage includes areas that the vagus nerve innervates above the neck, around the neck, as well as a few areas below the neck. This gentle massage will help with facial expressions, aiding your ability to connect with others. 


To encourage the relaxation response to kick in, focus on lengthening your exhalations as you explore this vagus nerve massage. Feel free to experiment with humming while massaging your facial muscles, neck and trapezius muscles. This practice encourages you to listen to your body as you find what feels good for you.


How To:

  1. Find a comfortable seat of your choosing. 

  2. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. 

  3. Explore a natural breathing pattern as you engage in this gentle vagus nerve massage. If it feels good, you can play around with making your exhalations slightly longer than your inhalations. 

  4. Using your fingers, gently massage your temples, moving your fingers in a circular motion. 

  5. When you feel ready, gently massage your brow bone in a way that feels good. 

  6. Move this gentle massage to your cheekbones, moving your fingers in a circular motion.

  7. When this feels complete, move your fingers to your jaw bone, starting at the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and then massage your way down the jaw bone in the direction of your chin.

  8. When it feels good, you can softly open and close your jaw a few times to encourage the muscles that support your jaw to relax.

  9. When you feel ready, gently massage your ears. You can gently take hold of your ears with your fingers to massage the outsides of your ears, or gently move your ears in a circle. Soften through your jaw as you do so. 

  10. When you feel ready, begin massaging the back and the sides of your neck. Explore a pressure that feels soothing.

  11. Take this gentle massage to your trapezius muscles, shoulders, and the front of your chest.

  12. Release your hands to your thighs. 

  13. Breathe in through your nose, and then exhale with an audible sigh through your mouth. Repeat this a few more times. 

  14. When you feel ready, allow your breath to return to a natural rhythm as you soak in the benefits of this gentle vagus nerve massage.


Splashing cold water on your face, laughter, somatic yoga practices, and demonstrating compassion through self-care practices are additional ways to stimulate the vagus nerve.


Feel free to engage in this guided yoga practice designed to stimulate the vagus nerve.



If you would like to learn more about the vagus nerve, kindly explore the resources listed below. 


References


Dana, Deb. Anchored : How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Boulder, Co, Sounds True, 2021.


“Home of Dr. Stephen Porges.” Home of Dr. Stephen Porges, www.stephenporges.com/.


Rosenberg, Stanley. Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve - Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism. North Atlantic Books, U.S, 2017.



Disclaimer: Rachel from Yoga with Rachel, highly recommends that you consult with your physician prior to participating in this exercise program. Please follow any safety precautions as indicated by your physician. Participating in any fitness regime involves the possibility of physical injury. Listen to your body. Stop the exercise if you are experiencing any pain or discomfort. If you decide to engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree to do so at your own risk. By voluntarily participating in these activities, you assume all risk of injury to yourself.

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