Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System and the Vagus Nerve: Deescalating Anxiety

REDUCING ANXIETY

Katie Parker MA, LPC

1/14/20243 min read

time lapse photography of woman portrait
time lapse photography of woman portrait

Anxiety can be a challenging emotion to navigate, often leaving individuals feeling overwhelmed and out of control. However, by understanding the autonomic nervous system and the role of the vagus nerve, it is possible to deescalate anxiety and regain a sense of calm. The autonomic nervous system plays a crucial role in regulating our body's response to stress, with the vagus nerve acting as a switch between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system responses.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating the body's involuntary functions, such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, and temperature control. It consists of two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the "fight, flight or freeze" response. When we encounter a perceived threat or danger, this system prepares our body for action. It increases heart rate, dilates blood vessels, and releases stress hormones like adrenaline, which help us respond quickly and effectively.

On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" state. It helps us relax, conserves energy, and promotes healing and recovery. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate slows down, blood vessels constrict, and digestion and other restorative processes are prioritized.

The Vagus Nerve: The Switch between Responses

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is a key player in regulating the autonomic nervous system. It is the longest cranial nerve in the body and connects the brain to various organs, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system.

One of the vagus nerve's primary functions is to act as a switch between the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. It plays a crucial role in maintaining balance and ensuring that our body's responses are appropriate for the situation at hand.

When the vagus nerve is activated, it sends signals to the brain, triggering the parasympathetic response and promoting relaxation. This activation helps counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels.

On the other hand, when the vagus nerve is less active, the sympathetic response dominates, leading to increased heart rate, heightened alertness, and a sense of anxiety or stress.

Deescalating Anxiety through Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Understanding the role of the vagus nerve in regulating our body's stress response can help us deescalate anxiety and promote a sense of calm. There are several techniques and practices that can stimulate the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic response and reducing anxiety symptoms. In essence, we can learn to control the severity and length of the anxiety we experience by learning about how our brains function and techniques to self-regulate autonomic nervous system responses. Below are just a few of many examples of these techniques and practices.

1. Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, can help stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. By taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the body, we can activate the parasympathetic response and calm the mind and body.

2. Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown to have a positive impact on anxiety and stress levels. By focusing on the present moment and cultivating a non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts and emotions, we can activate the parasympathetic response and reduce anxiety symptoms.

3. Physical Exercise

Engaging in regular physical exercise not only benefits our physical health but also has a positive impact on our mental well-being. Exercise stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting the release of endorphins and reducing anxiety and stress levels.

4. Social Connection

Building and maintaining social connections can help activate the parasympathetic response and reduce anxiety. Spending time with loved ones, engaging in meaningful conversations, and participating in social activities can all stimulate the vagus nerve and promote a sense of calm.

5. Relaxation Techniques

Practicing relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or aromatherapy can help activate the parasympathetic response and reduce anxiety. These techniques promote a state of deep relaxation and help counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system.

6. Vocal Chord Stimulation

Your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords. Humming, gargling and singing can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and activate the vagus nerve through vibration. There is some mixed research on the effects of music and the therapeutic effects and ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system response and vagas nerve.

7. Cold Exposure

Stepping outside into cod weather, using ice, taking a cold shower, splashing cold water on your face are all examples of ways to expose your body to cold in a way that will help activate the vagus. Cold exposure restricts your blood vessels which activates the nerve it also increases the production of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Conclusion

Anxiety can be a challenging emotion to manage, however, by understanding the autonomic nervous system and the role of the vagus nerve, it is possible to deescalate anxiety and self-regulate emotion. By engaging in practices that stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic response individuals can effectively reduce anxiety symptoms and promote overall well-being. Above are only a few of the many ways that the vagus nerve can be stimulated and parasympathetic nervous system activated.