What is the Vagus Nerve? (And why you should care.)

A diagram of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the single longest nerve pathway in the human body.  It runs from your brain all the way down to your gut, branching out along the way so that it becomes a visceral response communication system that connects all your major organs to your central nervous system.  When you understand what the vagus nerve does, you can start applying that knowledge to manage your personal energy.

Eighty percent of the vagus nerve is afferent, meaning that it conducts impulses to the central nervous system.  The other twenty percent is efferent, running signals from the central nervous system out to the body.  This means that mostly our vagus nerve is collecting information from our body and delivering it to our central nervous system, but we do have the ability to direct thoughts and impulses outward to the vagus in ways that can affect our physical being.

In “Conquering College Anxiety” I share strategies for “hacking” the vagus nerve to get yourself out of fight/flight/freeze mode.  Many people today feel trapped in near constant loops of anxiety and fear, but there is something you can do about it.  Managing our personal energy is a skill, and all skills can be improved.

Breathe Purposefully

Your vagus nerve is intimately connected to your breathing and heart rate.  When we perceive that we are in any kind of danger, the vagus nerve communicates back and forth with the body to make sure that we have increased oxygenation and blood flow throughout the body so that we can fight off the danger or flee from it.  We can use this same mechanism in the body to slow down our heart rate and signal that we are safe.  The easiest way to do so is to breathe purposefully.

Diaphragmatic breathing is slow, deep breathing.  When we engage the diaphragm to draw air into the lungs, our belly should push out and be round, like a pot belly.  Our chest and shoulders should not go up and out as much as when we’re doing stress-related breathing.  When you practice diaphragmatic breathing, inhale for three seconds, hold for one second, and then exhale for four seconds.  As you continue to practice, increase the time of inhalation to four or five seconds, and the exhalation to five or six seconds.  Always exhale longer than your inhale.

This slower, more purposeful breathing sends that signal through the vagus that we are not in threat mode, that we can take some time to slow down.  As you breathe this way, your heart rate will slow down, and your blood pressure should decrease.

Vagal Braking

Another way to send a signal of calm and safety through through the vagus nerve is called vagal braking.  Imagine driving down the highway in a car, doing about sixty miles per hour.  You don’t want to stop; you just want to slow down a little, and there’s no emergency, so you lightly apply the brake until the car eases down to forty-five miles per hour.  We can do the same thing with our breathing, and in doing so send the message through the vagus that it’s a good time to slow down.

Here’s the fun thing: one of the best ways to do this is by humming or singing!  When we hum or sing, we’re purposefully controlling the outflow of air to make the exhale last longer, and that “hacks” the vagus nerve to put us in safety mode.  This is why there are traditions all over the world, across cultures, going back thousands of years, of people chanting.  Our ancestors discovered a long time ago that when they chanted their inner state changed dramatically and they felt better, more connected to the universe.

Research today using brain and heart monitoring shows that when we practice vagal braking there are many positive outcomes.  Amazing stuff!

Meet Face-to-Face

Humans have evolved to be highly social animals, and that has even effected the development of our nervous system.  According to the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, human beings are scanning the faces of other humans throughout the day to check for signs of safety or threat.  In our highly technological world, we communicate often with other people without looking at their faces.  Phone calls, text messages, and emails allow us to gather the information we need to move through the activities of the day without actually seeing the people we’re communicating with, and even the Zoom calls that have become so ubiquitous as part of pandemic culture don’t give us as much face scanning as one might first think.  We tend to multi-task while in these meetings, so we’re not actually looking at the faces on the screen as much as listening to the voices while we focus on other things.

It’s critical that we start creating more time to be face-to-face with others, and that when we’re with them, we’re truly present with them.  When we spend time looking at the faces of the people in our world, our threat recognition system will get more assurances that we are safe, and we’ll feel more connected.

It’s so important that we don’t take for granted the simple steps we can take every day to send healthy, positive signals through our vagal system.  When we approach personal energy management as a form of hygiene, like taking a shower or brushing one’s teeth, we become more in charge of our own well-being.