Put on your lucky shirt, cuz we’re going to Vagus!
No, not Las Vegas. Today, we’re visiting the vagus nerve.
“The what?” you’re probably saying.
The vagus nerve. It might just be the most important part of your body that you’ve never heard of. Well, I’m sure some of you have, but most of you are maybe wondering, “What the heck it that and why have I never heard of it?”
Well, don’t worry, because all will be made perfectly clear in next few minutes.
But first, imagine you’re driving to work, listening to your favorite song, going about your lovely day, when all of a sudden someone cuts you off and makes you almost spill your coffee.
You kinda freak out just a bit. You shake the wheel and slam the brakes so you don’t collide. And then you begin to use some very colorful language wishing evil thoughts upon this reckless and, in your mind, dangerous driver…I mean maniac.
Your hands clench, your heart rate skyrockets, your face turns red, and your blood pressure makes the veins in your neck bulge. It’s not a lovely day any longer.
These feelings and symptoms will likely linger for a while (minutes, maybe even hours), and you’ll probably tell that story about that senseless maniac all day long to whomever will listen, which of course, revives the unpleasant memories and associated negative reactions. But eventually, you do calm down.
Well, lucky for you, there is. Welcome to Vagus.
Today we are going to unlock the shortcut to greater creativity, stronger focus, and better decision making. We do that by reducing our heart rate, lowering our blood pressure, and calming our reactions to stress. And we do it all through the vagus nerve.
So, let’s first get to know what this mysterious vagus nerve does and where it resides. The vagus nerve is a long cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem into your neck, chest, and abdomen, all the way down to your pelvic floor. It’s the longest cranial nerve and it interacts with every organ in the body.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the word vagus comes from the Latin, vagare, which means to wander. And boy does this nerve wander.
It meanders all the way from the brain down to the pelvis making stops everywhere in between. It’s responsible for the regulation of all internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as vasomotor activity, like blood pressure, goosebumps and, blood flow to the skin and pelvic region (if you know what I mean). It also keeps us safe by managing certain reflex actions, such as swallowing, coughing, sneezing, and vomiting.
With so much responsibility in the hands of just one nerve, we should really learn what we can do to keep the vagus happy and functioning optimally. Suffice it to say, pretty much anything we do, affects the vagus nerve in some way. From the way we breathe to the foods we eat to the stress we encounter; these all have an impact on whether our vagus resonates with a high tone or a low tone.
A low vagal tone keeps us in a state of anger, fear, distress, or any other less than desirable feeling or emotion. Whereas a high vagal tone allows us to recover more easily from these stressful situations.
With a low vagal tone, you are tired, cranky, and inflexible – not exactly the model of leadership you’re seeking to embody, is it. With a high vagal tone, you are energetic, enthusiastic, and resilient – exactly the qualities a strong leader possesses and expresses.
So, let’s make sure we do what we can to maintain a high vagal tone. And to do that, we are going to unlock three shortcuts to better health, better mood, and better executive functioning.
We’re gonna start out with the best bang for your buck. The first shortcut to positively modulating the vagus nerve is singing, humming, chanting, laughing, or hugging.
Now, while we can’t do all of these at the same time (and probably not in public either for fear of looking like a lunatic), it is good to know that we have options when we want to stimulate our vagus nerve into high resonance.
Remember how I said the vagus nerve is the wanderer. Well, it wanders all through the mouth, face, neck, throat, chest, and abdomen. And as you can imagine when you sing, hum, or chant, you’re hitting all those regions.
The wandering vagus nerve also connects to and around your lungs, so hugging is a welcome comfort to your vagus nerve and your pursuit of affection and belonging. There’s a win-win if I ever heard one.
And who doesn’t like to laugh? Because the vagus nerve runs through your diaphragm down to the pelvic floor, laughing stimulates your craving for entertainment and has a major effect on stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympa-what? The parasympathetic nervous system.
I realize I didn’t tell you this before, but the vagus nerve is the chief operating officer of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is sometimes referred to as the rest-and-digest system. And it’s called that because it regulates your bodily functions while you’re at rest. As opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which is commonly referred to as the fight or flight system. And it’s called that because it regulates your bodily functions while you’re in action.
After you experience periods of extreme activity or high stress, the vagus nerve is responsible for “calming” your mind, your organs, and other systems so the body can return to homeostasis, that rest-and-digest state we just mentioned.
The second shortcut to positively stimulate your vagus nerve is through specific intentional breathing. And with this one, we’re gonna go backyard BBQ style — low and slow.
There is a particular style of breath that combines long exhales with deep humming – kind of a two-fer. (I told you it was a shortcut.)
This breathing technique comes from the yoga practice Bhramari Pranayama. The word Bhramari is Sanskrit for humming bee. And that sound is what we seek to achieve with each exhale in this breathing practice.
As with any intentional breathing, you want to sit in a comfortable position with your neck and back upright but not uptight and your feet planted firmly on the ground. Of course, you can assume a seated yoga position on the floor with legs crossed if you prefer.
The breath begins with a four-second inhale through the nose and a six- to eight-second exhale through the nose. And as you exhale, you want to generate a low hum in the back of your throat. At first, you will find your humming is coming more from your nose and mouth, but try to move the vibration toward the back of your throat. This will produce a lower vibration enhancing your effect on the vagus nerve. (The deeper the hum, the stronger the effect.)
To amplify the effect further, you can close your eyes and cover your ears by gently placing your fingers in your ears or cupping them with your palms. It is not necessary but in doing so you may find greater focus and improved mental rejuvenation.
Before we move on to the next shortcut, let me tell you about an added bonus to this humming technique. When you hum you dramatically increase the level of nitric oxide (NO) in your nasal cavity.
Don’t get too excited. I said nitric oxide, not nitrous oxide. I know you were hoping I gave you the shortcut to easily produce your own laughing gas. Nope, you’re still gonna need to get that at the dentist, not through humming.
While we all know that laughter is the best medicine, nitric oxide is the real remedy. Nitric oxide is known to be an antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial, as well as a broncho- and vasodilator. That means humming puts your nose to work as a concierge doctor bringing the meds to you directly – no prescription, no drug store, no waiting. Just good, clean, effective healthcare from you, for you.
Now, if that’s not enough or you find humming just a bit awkward, I’ll give you one more shortcut to actively regulate your vagus nerve. And that shortcut is a gentle ear massage.
The technique is simple and doesn’t look weird in public. Well, not too weird anyway.
When you’re feeling particularly stressed, take a moment to grasp the inner and outer lower part of your ear with your forefinger and thumb like you are creating a pirate’s earring. Once you’ve made this finger loop around the cartilage part of your earlobe, gently and slowly make clockwise circles ten times. And then do ten counterclockwise circles. Repeat this activity three times.
You can do this with either ear, one at a time or both at once. It really doesn’t matter because the vagus nerve runs on both sides of your skull equally and will appreciate your aural affection in this challenging moment.
Please understand that pressing or tugging will not improve the massage. This is not a muscle you are manipulating, it is a nerve and it’s right on the surface. Always be gentle when massaging in and around your ears.
There are many other ways to massage the vagus around the ears, so find a spot that feels good and give yourself a gentle cranial caress whenever you’re feeling like you need a little “woosah.”
So how will you decide to calm your vagus nerve next time you’re feeling the stress of your present company or current environment? How will you learn to sing, hum, laugh, or breathe your way through the discomfort? And how will you remember to give yourself a little ear massage to slow your racing heart and restore equilibrium?
Do you realize you’ve just unlocked the shortcut to greater creativity, deeper focus, and better decision making? That’s because keeping your vagal tone under control promotes reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, and regulated emotions. And that allows you to more aware, more present, and more clear-headed.
Through singing, humming, laughing, and breathing you become more emotionally intelligent, mentally resilient, and more of the leader you always wanted to be.