The Vagus Nerve - the nerve you need to know about

If there’s one nerve in your body that you need to know about, it’s the vagus nerve. It regulates some of the most critical systems in your body, and also controls your response to danger and safety, triggering your fight and flight response and calming you down as needed.

But it may surprise you to know that it also impacts your bodily functions, levels of stress, and impacts your relationships and capacity for intimacy. So read on to learn more about this critical (and big!) nerve!

What is the vagus nerve? 

The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body with the ability to alter your mood and regulate your cardiovascular, digestive and reproductive systems, as well as many of your internal organs. It contains sensory and motor fibres and is in charge of sensations and movement.

You could say that it’s the main switchboard for your Autonomic Nervous System. Its duty is to warn you about danger and trigger your body to react in a way that keeps you safe. This includes mobilising anxiety-causing and reducing effects in response to certain stimuli, such as putting you into high alert, triggering the fight or flight response, calming you down and putting you into ‘rest and digest’ mode if there’s nothing to worry about.

These functions can shift based on all sorts of factors - including the environment, external stimuli, social situations, psychological trauma and our perception and interpretation of the world around us.


Why the functionality of your vagus nerve matters to your health

So why should we care about the function of the vagus nerve? Well, your body isn’t designed to stay on high alert. When you’re in constant fight or flight mode your muscles are pumped and ready to go, your sensory responses are heightened, and you’re getting shots of energy ready to react. The vagus nerve sends signals to divert resources from organs and deeper autonomous systems to help make this happen.

Your nervous system can’t tell the difference between physical and psychological distress. Modern stressors aren’t as temporary as the threats it was evolved to protect us from. This often means you’re in a prolonged and damaging state of fight or flight and struggling with high anxiety and stress.

Your body needs you to go into a relaxed ‘rest and digest’ state to help you go into repair and regeneration mode. This state usually happens after eating or when resting - so if you’re in constant survival mode, you’re not slowing down and giving your body time to recover. This can negatively impact your heart rate and cardiovascular system, blood glucose levels, immune system, stress levels and overall health and wellbeing.

Most sexual issues are also anxiety-related

When it comes to sexual issues, many are stress and anxiety-related. If you’re feeling stressed, your body isn’t able to feel safe and calm itself down. And when you’re feeling stressed, your body is also not functioning correctly. There’s a high chance you’re also struggling with digestive issues, tightness in your muscles and chest, a brain that’s constantly busy looking for danger and an inability to focus. Obviously this isn't conducive to relaxing into pleasure. You may find yourself unable to even think about intimacy and self-care.

How to stimulate your vagus nerve

But the good news is your vagus nerve is also designed to look for cues that things are safe. When it finds these, it triggers you to enter a calm state, relax and open up to engage with others socially - and this is good news for your relationships.

Stimulating the vagus nerve can help activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and return the body to a more natural resting state of 'rest and digest'. This can be done with longer out breaths, yin yoga techniques, self-caring meditative techniques, meditation, and cold water can all elicit a relaxation response and bring your heart rate back down.

You can also feed your body with the physical information it needs to relax. This includes auditory vibration (such as humming and hawing), chanting, and breathing exercises, like this one;


4-7-8 Calm Breathing

The 4-7-8 calm breathing technique is one such exercise that will help. When you use diaphragmatic breathing and focus on slowing down respiration cycles, you kickstart the calming 'rest and digest' influence of the PNS. This is also known as respiratory Vagus Nerve Stimulation (rVNS).
It’s a controlled breathing exercise that focuses on longer exhalations than inhalation and shifting the focus of respiration to the abdomen (diaphragmatic breathing). Slow breathing signals a state of relaxation that results in more Vagus Nerve activity and further relaxation.

In this exercise, you inhale for a count of 4, hold for 7 and exhale for 8. Eight cycles are recommended, but you can keep going until you feel your body calm. The more you practice, the more effective this exercise will become. Hands-On Meditation has an excellent video that talks you through the exercise - you’ll find that here.

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