Can stimulating your vagus nerve help reduce anxiety?

The most reliable research we have has shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can reduce anxiety through breathwork and electrodes. Despite online methods that claim to stimulate the vagus nerve, ranging from laughter, cold exposure, yoga, and chanting, to massage, there is limited evidence supporting these practices. Two reliable ways stand out as the most reliable techniques for stimulation, breathwork and electrodes. 

Even renowned researchers in the field remain uncertain about some of the underlying mechanisms that affect the vagus nerve, with new discoveries happening every year. 

Despite ongoing research into its effects on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, our understanding of the vagus nerve is still in its early stages. 

Here at RESET, we are firm believers that everyone deserves to unlock their complete potential which is why we are writing these free educational blogs. As a team of experienced Psychologists and Psychotherapists, we want to help you make an informed decision about your treatment journey, with the ultimate goal of providing the best possible care tailored to your needs.

In this blog, we will explore how can breathwork exercise your vagus nerve for anxiety.

How can Breathwork exercise your vagus nerve to reduce anxiety

What is the Vagus Nerve and how does it help with anxiety?

The vagus nerve is involved in controlling our breathing and heart rate, amongst other essential functions in our bodies, including even supporting the immune system! As a cranial nerve, the vagus nerve carries information between our bodies and brains. Because of this incredibly important function, the primary role of the vagus nerve is to transmit sensory information about the actual condition of our bodies (how we feel!). 

Through carrying information both to and from our brains, the vagus nerve allows the brain to monitor the state of the body and is closely related to the body’s stress response. By increasing activity in the vagus nerve, we may be able to moderate our levels of anxiety, promoting a sense of relaxation and calm.

meditation can exercise the vagus nerve to reduce anxiety

Breathwork to stimulate the Vagus nerve

A practical approach to reducing heart rate and perceived stress is by embracing structured breathing techniques, like those found in breathwork! The RESET model includes a ton of breathwork and meditations, with a specific focus on elongating the exhaling phase. We also offer many resources for free like this 2-minute guided breathwork video for anxiety and stress.

By reducing our heart rate and perceived stress, these practices activate the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a self-reinforcing relaxation cycle. 

Activity in the vagus nerve is regulated by our breathing, specifically, whether we are inhaling or exhaling, showing heightened activity during inhalation and inhibited activity during exhalation. Because of this pattern, Breathwork is one method used to stimulate the vagus nerve. One can consciously extend the duration of exhalation compared to inhalation (breathing OUT for longer than you breathe IN) to, basically, calm down. 

This shift in vagus nerve activity contributes to the amazing sense of relaxation associated with mindfulness meditation which just reinforces how intentional breathing during meditation affects both the body and mind. By actively changing our breathing patterns, we can instigate a cascade of changes, offering a holistic approach to well-being.

Electrodes to stimulate the Vagus Nerve –  What is Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS)?

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A doctor can stimulate the vagus nerve by attaching electrodes to the ear, where a branch of the vagus nerve is accessible, we can precisely stimulate the vagus nerve using adjustable frequencies, allowing for direct stimulation without any invasive surgical procedures. 

Recognising the need for more accessible methods, researchers developed this new technique known as tVNS. tVNS uses small devices that deliver electrical currents through clips with built-in electrodes placed on the ear

In the past, the most common method of stimulating the vagus nerve was through using an invasive procedure (e.g. percutaneous), involving inserting a small device under the skin. Though more invasive than tVNS, the percutaneous method proved successful, and has even been used as an intervention for treatment-resistant depression and epilepsy

Preliminary studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of tVNS in reliably stimulating the vagus nerve, with promising applications for reducing experimentally induced pain ratings.

What to do if you are struggling with anxiety

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Anxiety is a common yet potentially debilitating experience when prolonged or severe, and can considerably impact our mental and physical well-being. Early evidence suggests that by stimulating the vagus nerve, we may be able to reliably reduce levels of anxiety. 

Recognising the complex interaction between vagus nerve activity and anxiety, it’s also crucial to consider possible individual differences influenced by our lifestyle, genetics, and overall health. Intentional breathing meditations emphasising extended exhalation offer a cost-effective, accessible strategy for reducing anxiety, with no notable side effects. As you explore the vagus nerve-anxiety connection, implementing mindful breathing represents a meaningful step towards achieving a more balanced and relaxed state of being.

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