Strengthen your brain-body connection for better emotional health by toning your vagus nerve.
Deep breathing. Chanting. Exercise. All of these activities have long been recommended for their grounding, calming benefits. And science is now showing us what these practices have in common: they “tone” or strengthen your vagus nerve.
Called “the wandering nerve”, your vagus nerve extends from your brain stem to your abdomen. It impacts an incredibly varied number of bodily functions, including your parasympathetic system, which helps put you into a relaxed, healthy state. When your vagus nerve is regularly stimulated, it remains strong. However, when your vagus tone is under-stimulated or “low”, it can contribute to disorders like anxiety and depression.
To develop a healthier nervous system—one that’s capable of processing emotions and helping you rest—actively tone your vagus nerve. Here are three techniques you can try for mental rejuvenation.
1. Use Your Voice
Singing, chanting, and humming have been shown to increase your heart rate variability, a phenomenon that stimulates your vagus nerve. Heart rate variability is linked with better emotional resilience, relaxation, and a healthier parasympathetic nervous system. Sing your heart out—and you may find it feels a little fuller as a result.
2. Breathe In, Breathe Out
Deep, slow breathing, a fixture of many meditation and yoga practices, activates the vagus nerve by increasing the sensitivity of your heart and neck’s “baroreceptors”. These special nerve cells signal to your vagus nerve that it should work to lower blood pressure. The trick is to draw deep breaths into your belly—about six per minute, or five seconds per inhale and five seconds per exhale.
3. Practice Loving-Kindness
When you actively cultivate positive thoughts towards others, your vagus nerve strengthens. Like with singing, positive thoughts can increase your heart rate variability, which has vagal toning benefits. Try loving-kindness meditations like this one: “May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain.” If your mind wanders, focus it back onto the various people in your life while repeating this mantra.