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The Vagus Nerve: Exercises for Calmness and Connection

woman laying down at a beach with her legs crossed and a book over her face

If you feel permanently caught in fight or flight mode, stressed, and unable to focus, then you need to know more about the vagus nerve! Learn the role of this crucial part of your nervous system and ten easy ways you can make it work for you.

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is part of something called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your vagus nerve is responsible for a variety of functions, including digestion, relaxation, making social connections, and the changes in your body when you are scared or traumatized.

The ANS should really be called the automatic nervous system because it runs multiple systems in your body, which occur without you having to think about them. The autonomic nervous system is split into two main parts, and the first part is the sympathetic nervous system. It's made up of nerves that come from the spinal cord in the chest (thoracic) and low back (lumbar) region.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. When activated, it increases your heart rate and blood pressure, increases your rate of breathing, dilates your pupils (to let in more light and improve vision when hunting or fighting), and increases the blood flow to your muscles so you can run or fight.

The second main part of the ANS is the parasympathetic system, which is primarily responsible for digestion, rest, and social connection. These are sort of the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system responsibilities. Most of the parasympathetic nervous system is in the vagus nerve – about 75%, in fact. The vagus nerve runs from the bottom of the brain all the way to the abdomen.

How Does the Vagus Nerve Help with Stress?

To understand the important role that your vagus nerve plays in regulating stress, we need just a few more details about the anatomy of the nerve itself.

The vagus nerve actually has two parts. [1] The first is the ventral branch, which is responsible for digestive functions, social connection, and things like lowering the heart rate. The ventral vagus nerve is fully activated while you are relaxing on the beach with someone you love, having a deep, intimate conversation.

The second part of the vagus nerve is the dorsal branch. The dorsal branch of the vagus nerve has some role in digestion and relaxation, but it’s mainly responsible for a primitive response to extreme stress. The dorsal vagus nerve is a sort of shutdown switch that disconnects you from others and makes you feel frozen in response to overwhelming fear as a form of self-preservation. Have you ever seen an animal play dead in response to a predator? That’s the dorsal vagus nerve kicking in!

You might also see this response at times when people are in the midst of trauma and freeze or don't respond. Bystanders report that some people struck by trains will stop when they see the oncoming train rather than jump from the tracks. That is an example of an extreme dorsal vagal shutdown response.

A strong activation of the dorsal vagus nerve often results in feelings of hopelessness or helplessness. This is why some victims of assault report feeling that they were outside of their body and could not fight their attackers. A sudden strong activation of the dorsal vagal response may also quickly drop your blood pressure and cause you to faint.

woman holding her head in her hands

What Happens When the Vagus Nerve Is In Overdrive?

Ideally, there should be a balance between your autonomic nervous system's sympathetic and parasympathetic portions. Your ventral vagus nerve should be in charge most of the time, fostering a strong sense of well-being, calmness, and security in your life. The dorsal vagus nerve should seldom be triggered, only responding in extreme cases of danger or trauma.

However, the reality of modern life is that most people stay in a permanent, low-level case of dorsal vagus nerve stimulation. Work stress, family needs, social and political conflict, and the hectic nature of life on the go can convince your parasympathetic nervous system that you are in constant danger. This same set of circumstances can also cause a continuous activation of your sympathetic nervous system so that you constantly feel the physical symptoms of fear or stress.

When both the sympathetic and dorsal vagal responses get stuck in activation, it can leave you feeling continually anxious (sympathetic activation) and hopeless or paralyzed (dorsal vagal reaction). Symptoms associated with this combination of responses include:

  • Nervousness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Mood swings
  • Trust issues
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Feelings of hopelessness or depression
  • High-risk behaviors
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Chest pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Loss of appetite

An imbalance of the autonomic nervous system as a whole can also worsen menstrual pain and asthma. [2]

How to Restore Your Resilience & Sense of Peace

Traditionally, the symptoms mentioned above are treated as distinct disorders. The problem with that approach is that treating any one symptom in isolation very rarely leaves the patient feeling balanced or truly well. For example, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, or sleep aids may cause improvement in the symptom being treated, but an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system impairs multiple bodily processes that a single diagnosis or prescription just can't address.

The good news is that there are simple and effective exercises you can do (or help someone else do) at home to restore autonomic balance! Mainly, these are focused on reducing the exaggerated sympathetic and/or dorsal vagal responses and increasing the ventral vagal performance. [3]

woman with her face turned up to the sky and her eyes closed

Ten Ways to Restore Healthy Autonomic Balance

The following are all free, easy ways to restore a healthy balance to your nervous system. We recommend choosing a few favorites and keeping them handy for times when stress threatens to derail your day:

1. Deep Breathing Exercises

We typically discuss breathing exercises with all of our patients precisely because so many people suffer from autonomic imbalances and can benefit from deep breathing. (4) It is especially helpful if slow breathing from the abdomen is performed.

One simple way to do this is 4-7-8 breathing. To do this exercise, find a quiet spot where you will not be disturbed. Then:

  • Breathe in for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale for a count of eight.
  • Repeat for at least three minutes.

If you have never done this before, you may need to slowly work your way up to holding your breath for 7 seconds to keep yourself comfortable and avoid inadvertently raising stress levels. If 7 seconds seems too long, try box breathing instead.

Legend has it that box breathing is used by Navy Seals prior to missions to help them remain calm. To do this exercise, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and repeat for at least 3 minutes. If you begin to feel dizzy, return to normal breathing until you feel better and try again another day.

2. Singing, Humming, or Gargling

You likely learned to hum before you learned to talk. Small children often hum when they eat or play to self-soothe.

This works because the vagus nerve is connected to the larynx, or voice box. The vibration produced by singing or humming stimulates the ventral portion of the vagus nerve. Since both of these activities are associated with prolonged exhalation, they also provide the benefits of deep breathing, but in a more social and fun manner.

Even if you can’t sing, humming or using a kazoo can give you the same benefits. Repetitive chanting with meditation or gargling can also help stimulate the ventral vagus.

3. Exercise

Although exercise initially stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and increases your heart rate and respiratory rate, the net effect after exercise is to stimulate a ventral vagal response. This is one of the reasons most people feel good after they finish exercising.

Extra points if you do this with a partner, as this establishes human connection. Studies have even shown that exercise training modifies the autonomic nervous system response in patients with heart problems. [5]

4. Dancing

This is one of our favorite activities! It’s a combination of exercise and increased breathing. And if you also sing or hum while dancing, you have achieved the trifecta of vagus nerve stimulation! Like exercise, doing it with others also adds connectedness to the mix.

four women dancing

5. Playing a Musical Instrument

Playing a musical instrument (or even just listening to music) stimulates the ventral vagus nerve. In musicians, a state of connectedness with the crowd and extreme peace or confidence while playing music masterfully is called “the flow state.” Several studies have examined the flow state and have found that this state affects heart rate variability. [6] [7]

6. Cold Water Exposure

Placing cold water or ice on your face or, if you are brave enough, a cold shower or ice bath can increase parasympathetic responses and lower your sympathetic tone. This has been demonstrated as an effective help with stress in several studies.[8] [9] [10]

7. The Vagal Push (AKA The Valsalva Maneuver)

To perform this exercise, lay on your back, tense your abdominal muscles, and bear down (as if having a bowel movement). Hold your breath while doing this and continue for 15-20 seconds. This can be repeated 3-4 times, with 2-minute breaks in between.

If you begin to feel dizzy or out of breath, stop this exercise and breathe normally. This exercise should not be done while sitting up or standing since it may cause fainting. The Vagal Push is so effective that a similar maneuver is sometimes used in the Emergency Department when people come in with an abnormally fast heart rhythm. [11] [12] [13]

8. Prayer, Meditation, or Yoga

Prayer, meditation, and yoga are known as contemplative practices. There is evidence that these behaviors stimulate the vagus nerve. [14] Group prayer, meditation, or yoga are also activities that can increase connectedness, so bonus points if you can do these activities with others!

women sitting cross legged on the floor meditating

9. Positive Emotions and Gratitude

Multiple studies show that people who cultivate positive emotions – gratitude, joy, forgiveness of others – have improved health and increased vagal tone. [15] There are various apps and programs available to help you develop these strategies for yourself. Support groups and hobbies can also be helpful.

10. Journaling

One thing we encourage all of our patients (and parents of our young patients) to do is to journal often. It does not have to be organized or fancy – just a cheap notebook and a pen will do.

We encourage people to write often about what they are thankful for or what good things they have. When you or your child are ill, thankfulness can be hard to muster at times in the thick of the fight. But we almost always have something good that we can name: air conditioning on a hot day, heat when it's cold outside, food to eat, and clothes to wear. Also, know that you have us on your side. We regularly pray for our patients, their families, and anyone who reads our work in print or online.

Research shows that expressive narrative writing in particular can have enormous benefits, including a lower heart rate, increased heart rate variability, and a strengthened immune system. [16] [17] To try it for yourself, journal about a challenging event or condition, listing your deepest thoughts and feelings. They also try to weave these emotions into a narrative story that tells your reader something about the meaning of the events. Even if you never share what you've written, you can still see the health benefits.

Get Help Restoring Vagus Nerve Balance

In addition to your lifestyle, a number of health issues can affect the performance of your autonomic nervous system, including nutrition and your gut microbiome. If you need help finding balance and eliminating physical symptoms of stress, please schedule your consultation with our team today.

Our functional medicine practice, The Center for Fully Functional Health, is located in Carmel, Indiana, and you can reach us by calling (317) 989-8463, Monday – Thursday 8AM to 5PM Eastern, or by filling out the contact form at the bottom of this page.


1 Porges SW. Orienting in a Defensive World: Mammalian Modifications of our Evolutionary Heritage–A Polyvagal Theory. Psychophysiology. 1995;32:301-318
2 Rosenberg S. Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism. North Atlantic Books. 2017
3 Porges SW, Doussard-Roosevelt JA, Maiti AK. Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1994;59(2-3):167-186
4 Wang SZ, Li S, Xu XY, et al. Effect of slow abdominal breathing combined with biofeedback on blood pressure and heart rate variability in prehypertension. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(10):1039-1045
5 Besnier F, Labrunée M, Pathak A, et al. Exercise training-induced modification in autonomic nervous system: An update for cardiac patients. Ann Phys Rehabil Med. 2017;60(1):27-35
6 de Manzano O, Theorell T, Harmat L, et al. The psychophysiology of flow during piano playing. Emotion. 2010;10(3):301-311
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9 Hayashi N, Ishihara M, Tanaka A, et al. Face immersion increases vagal activity as assessed by heart rate variability. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1997;76(5):394-399
10 Paulev PE, Pokorski M, Honda Y, et al. Facial cold receptors and the survival reflex "diving bradycardia" in man. Jpn J Physiol. 1990;40(5):701-712
11 Smith G. Management of supraventricular tachycardia using the Valsalva manoeuvre: A historical review and summary of published evidence. European Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2012;19(6), 346-352
12 Smith GD, Fry MM, Taylor D, Morgans A, Cantwell K. Effectiveness of the Valsalva Manoeuvre for reversion of supraventricular tachycardia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015;2:1-22
14 Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:397
15 Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science. 2013;24(7):1123-1132
16 ​​Bourassa KJ, Allen JJB, Mehl MR, Sbarra DA. Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure After Marital Separation. Psychosom Med. 2017;79(6):697-705
17 Pennebaker JW, Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Glaser R. Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1988;56(2):239-245

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