Blog: What Does Your Vagus Nerve Have to do with Anxiety?

If you experience anxiety and panic attacks then you’re probably familiar with the body’s fight or flight response, an automatic response that’s initiated by the sympathetic nervous system. During the fight or flight response, our body releases stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones give us a surge of energy that allows us to fight harder or flee faster from danger – it’s a survival mechanism. Sometimes that danger is concrete and obvious, like a mama bear crossing our path on a hiking trail.  Other times, the danger is less tangible and may come in the form of worries, like how we’re going to make rent at the end of the month.

But did you know our body has an opposing response? The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming our body. So, the fight or flight response is really handy if a bear is chasing us and there’s still a chance for survival. But what happens when the bear catches up to us and starts snacking on our leg? Well, this wonderful relaxation response takes over (another form of protection) and feel-good hormones, also known as endorphins, are released.

We can actually tap into this relaxation response  by stimulating something called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, aka “The Wanderer,” is a cranial nerve that branches out to most of our body and is basically captain of keeping a lot of different functions in check, like breathing, heart rate, digestion, inflammation, etc. Here are a few simple ways to stimulate that vagus nerve and tap into your body’s relaxation response:

  1. Use your vocal cords by talking, singing or humming (apparently humming is most effective)
  2. Deep belly breathing
  3. Splashing some cool water on your face
  4. Coughing a few times
  5. Gargling
  6. Drinking cold water
  7. Chewing gum
  8. Laughing

These are just some tricks that have helped me and other clients in the past. They are by no means a "cure all," but they can help to interrupt the anxiety cycle so you can gain some altitude in the moment. Sometimes that altitude is all we need so that the anxiety doesn't become all consuming but instead a fleeting and temporary experience - like a wave washing over us.