Blog: Biohack your vagus nerve to increase stress resilience
“Distress and anxiety are normal reactions to a situation as threatening and unpredictable as the coronavirus pandemic.”
In this article we are talking about ways to ‘biohack’ your vagus nerve to help increase your resilience to stress. What does that even mean?! Let me explain…
- I’m sure we can all agree that living through a global pandemic can cause a widespread increase in stress, distress and anxiety.
- “Biohacking is the art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you so you have more control over your own biology.” – Shape.com
- The vagus nerve runs from the neck to the abdomen and is responsible for turning off the fight or flight reflex.
Stimulating the vagus nerve acts a brake to the stress response
Research has shown that we are able biohack our stress response by engaging in practices which stimulate the vagus nerve. When we stimulate this nerve enough it signals the body to stop the physiological fight/ flight response – which we commonly call stress.
Anatomically the vagus nerve is a branching nerve connecting most of the major organs from the brain to the colon. It modulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part responsible for fostering calm and relaxation in the body. Therefore, the vagus nerve is essential in building stress resilience.
Stress resilience & vagal tone
Scientists have found that the state of our vagus nerve (the tone) directly correlates to our level of stress resilience. The higher the vagal tone the higher the stress resilience. Vagal tone can be measured using Heart Rate Variability (HRV), athletes have high HRV (resulting in higher vagal tone & higher stress resilience) and who have been on bedrest tend to have lower HRV (resulting in lower vagal tone & lower stress resilience).
“Heart rate variability is the amount that the heart rate fluctuates between a breath in (when it naturally speeds up) and a breath out (when it naturally slows down).”
How to reduce stress by increasing vagal tone
Fortunately, there are numerous ways we can stimulate the vagus nerve to build up vagal tone, which in turn builds our stress resilience – same may be more surprising than others!
- Deep, slow belly breathing
- Loud singing
- Cold water face immersion (and whole-body cold water immersion)
- Exercise to increase your HRV
Some of the above practices lend themselves to being part of a daily routine, such as cold-water immersion at the end of a hot shower or singing while you’re making breakfast, and of course exercise. The best ‘in the moment’ option for reducing stressful feelings related to a situation you are currently in is breathing deeply into the bottom of your lungs and exhaling for slightly longer than the inhale.
“Deep breathing activates specific neurons that detect blood pressure. These neurons signal to the vagus nerve that blood pressure is becoming too high, and the vagus nerve in turn responds by lowering your heart rate.”
…and therefore, lowering the fight/ flight response leading to reducing the experience of stress.
The concept of biohacking your body in this way is interesting and has proven to be very effective. Rather than tackling stress or anxiety at the level of thoughts or feelings, which can be hard to put your finger on, by toning your vagus nerve you are tapping straight into your nervous system to make changes at the source. Who knew that it could be as fun as karaoke night (singing) or watching your favourite comedy show (laughing) on TV!