The vagus nerve stretches all the way from the stem of the brain, to the internal organs, the lungs, heart, tongue, and vocal cords.
Its stimulation is known as the ‘vagal response’, a method which has been found to treat anxiety as a part of pranayama, a regular yoga practice.
According to Hans-Rudolf Berthoud, the vagus nerve has a great number of functions, and the main of these include:
“1. It is intimately involved in managing sympathetic/parasympathetic balance in the autonomic nervous system (ANS)
- It communicates messages between the gut and the brain.
- It regulates the muscle movement necessary to keep you breathing.
- It helps decrease inflammation.
- It can help relieve cluster headaches.
- It has profound control over heart rate and blood pressure.
- It helps improve your mood
- It plays a role in learning and memory.”
In 1921, a German physiologist Otto Loewi found that stimulating the vagus nerve led to a reduction in heart rate by stimulating the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German for “Vagus Substance”), and was later identified as acetylcholine, the first neurotransmitter ever identified by scientists.
It acts as a self-administered tranquilizer by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales, that leads to calmness and tames the inflammatory reflex.
Dr. Mladen Golubic, an internist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, claims that this stimulation method of the vagus nerve relieves stress and treats anxiety, soothes the symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and treats cardiovascular disease.
“It’s almost like a yin and yang. The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things happen when we are relaxed.
There are studies that show that people who practice breathing exercises and have those (abovementioned) conditions – they benefit. ”
In most cases, inflammation is the normal response of the body to stress, so reducing “fight-or-flight” responses in the nervous system and reducing the biological markers for stress can effectively fight inflammation and prevent various chronic diseases and conditions.
The amygdala (um-ig-duh-luh), is a part of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), responsible for the “fight-or-flight response”, and it is a constant state in the case of mental health issues, like chronic anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, when we are relaxed, our body engages the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) by stimulating the vagus nerve.
The vital thing in the stimulation of the vagus nerve is to control breathing, as heavy breathing and a spike in blood pressure are the byproducts of SNS fight-or-flight activity.
“Deep breathing is a great example of that. We have a certain space where we can control breathing. We can extend the inhalation and the exhalation.
So by those practices, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The best practice is a complete breath which involves diaphragmatic breathing.”
In the case of stress and anxiety , we usually chest breathe, instead of diaphragmic breathing. The diaphragm plays a vital role in breathing, since it inflates the lungs.
It is actually a muscular wall that separates the lungs from the stomach area. Yet, we tend to breathe shallowly (“chest breathe”) instead of using it, and this reduces the oxygen flow and thus affects the body and mind.
Therefore here is a simple trick to help you relieve anxiety almost instantly:
“Lie on your back on a flat surface or a bed, with the knees slightly bent (you may use a pillow underneath the knees for support).
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just underneath the rib cage – this will allow you to feel your diaphragm as you breathe.
Breathe in slowly through the nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.”
The, while breathing out through the tightly pressed lips, tighten the belly muscles, and the hand on the chest should remain still.
As soon as you master this technique, it would be easy to practice it while sitting as well. Wit with the knees bent, and the neck, head, and shoulders relaxed.
Slowly inhale through the nose to move he stomach against the hand, which should remain still on the chest.
Place one hand on the upper chest and the other just below the rib case, tighten the stomach muscles, and let them fall inward while breathing out.
Start by practicing this technique for 5-10 minutes, three times daily, and gradually increase the time.
You will feel the positive effects immediately!