The vagus nerve is a large but mysterious nerve network — of which most of us have never heard –that exists in every human body. It may also be the secret mechanism that allows us to control stress, anxiety, and depression. Happy Ali investigates.
Turn on any television news almost any night of the week and you get a seemingly never-ending stream of violence, betrayal, lawlessness, and brute chaos. The natural psychological reaction to stressors such as these is a sharp jump in nervous tension, an explosion in blood pressure and a negative mindset. It’s little wonder that depression and anxiety are considered among the 21st century’s most concerning emotional afflictions.
But scientific researchers are slowly beginning to understand a mysterious part of the body that may well provide us with the power to help deal with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and stress. Moreover, we have always had that power: it is just that we did not know it existed.
Please allow us to introduce you to the vagus nerve, a fabulous gift from our own, very human biology. Many scientists believe that the vagus nerve is the body’s natural defence mechanism to fight feelings of chronic stress and tension, and help feel calmer, more secure, and perhaps even more compassionate. It is so powerful that some believe it may also play a role in preventing disease.
The vagus nerve is the largest and one of the most complex nerve systems in the human body, connecting the brain with the heart, lungs and gut but is also intimately connected to our immune system. In scientific circles, it is also known as the 10th cranial nerve, one of 12 nerves that stretch out from the brain with millions of slender tendrils much like the root system of a plant.
These nerve systems are the body’s communication lines sending signals to all the vital organs to keep them operating with the intensity and sequence needed to sustain life.
Some of these cranial nerves collect information from the eyes, the skin, and the tongue, while others distribute information to glands or muscles. Of these 12 cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is the longest, largest, and most intricate yet it is also the one about which we know least.
So far, scientists have linked this nerve to symptomatic changes in people with migraine headaches, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and many other common illnesses. But as we glean more and more information about how this nerve works, the more scientists suspect that it could hold the key to treating some of mankind’s most distressing conditions.
“It seems like every year somebody finds a new organ or system that it talks with,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “There’s a massive bioelectrical and biochemical series of events that the vagus nerve is responsible for and all that is almost impossible to map.”
Field says that branches of the vagus nerve are connected to the face and voice. “We know that depressed people have low vagal activity, and this is associated with less intonation and less-active facial expressions,” she explains.
Our bodies receive and process information all the time. So, even when we are watching the TV news or working on our computer, the visual stimulation from seeing a car crash or a street riot or combat footage from some far-flung battle zone is more than enough to trigger our innate “fight or flight” responses.
You may feel a tightness in the chest combined with a sharp boost in pulse rate as adrenaline floods the body and prepares us for physical acts of running or fighting. This is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
Once all that adrenaline is pumping through the body, what happens after the perceived threat disappears? Well, that is where the vagus nerve comes in. It controls what is known as the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, it processes that the threat is gone and calms us down again.
But here is the problem. In the modern age, stress is no longer a tiger that disappears into the jungle. Stress can originate from almost anything – fear of violence or war, or financial stress or fear that you will lose your job. Perhaps your partner does not love you anymore. Perhaps you or a loved one has an incurable disease. Perhaps it is a fear of failure.
Whatever it is, heightened sympathetic responses sustained over lengthy periods can have serious consequences in both physical and psychological form.
What scientists are now discovering is that with a little knowledge and some proactive exploration, we can learn to use the vagus nerve to intervene despite the constant stress. In other words, the vagus can help us navigate our way back to balance.
Scientists believe the vagus nerve can be manipulated and activated in several ways. Ok, this may get a little complex but stay with me – the vagus nerve operates the parasympathetic nerve system with two distinct responses. These are the dorsal vagal nerve network (DVN) and the ventral vagal nerve (VVN) network.
network takes over when the body is overwhelmed. It activates a shutdown on
emotional responses protecting you from flipping out. It is what happens when combat-weary
soldiers remain unaffected by death and violence.
The VVN network is activated when you make social contact with another person. Put simply, a problem shared is a problem halved. Talking about problems diminishes their emotional and psychological impact, triggering calmness.
It is the VVN network that you want to stimulate when you are having a bad day. And here is why. The 10th cranial nerve extends down from the brain, across the face, through your eyes, your mouth, your neck into your heart, lungs in a million-strong web of nerve endings.
That means that when you make eye contact, smile, take a deep breath, stretch your neck, shrug your shoulders, throw your arms in the air, twist your body or just laugh, you are stimulating the VVN. All these actions send signals to your brain to relax. There’s an old saying that applies here: laughter is the best medicine. It may be a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason – because it’s true.
According to Dacher Keltner, scientific researcher and author of Born to be Good, when you actively stimulate the vagus nerve in these ways, you also activate your prefrontal cortex, the logic centre of the brain, so you are improving your ability to make decisions.
Additionally, these actions also stimulate the body’s release of oxytocin, a hormonal neurotransmitter secreted in the brain that is better known as the love hormone. Oxytocin optimises your heart rate and promotes emotions such as compassion and empathy and encourages social interaction.
These reactions are also stimulated by touch from others. A soothing palm stroke on your back feels good because it stimulates oxytocin production as does seeing someone smile at you, which prompts you to smile back thus creating a cascade of positive feeling.
All these things help the vagus nerve to fire up and calm you down. You have the power to control how you feel.
And here is another observation. Some people are simply better at turning on their vagus nerve than others. These are the people who give rather than receive. They are the most trusted kid in the class. They are the friend you always go to when you need to talk. They are the peacemakers. There probably that kid in the playground who breaks up fights rather than starts them. And they are probably the better version of ourselves.
Five quick ways to well being by stimulating the vagus nerve:
|1||Tune in to how your body feels when you are stressed|
|2||Relax tensed muscles|
|3||Use your breathing – in and out, slowly. Exhale longer than inhaling|
|4||Interact with people. Smile at someone. Say “hello”|
|5||Steer your thoughts in a more helpful direction. Think good.|