Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism

Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism

by Stanley Rosenberg

Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve is a practical guide to understanding the cranial nerves as the key to our psychological and physical wellbeing. By understanding the physiology of the autonomic nervous system and practicing simple exercises to restore proper vagal functioning, we can learn how to improve our emotional state within minutes. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, panic, and trauma will find much that is useful here, as well as those with physical ailments such as chronic pain and digestive problems. 

When we change our emotional state from one of pain and confusion to one of wellbeing and feeling safe, we feel better, think more clearly, and have better interactions with others. The healing power of the vagus nerve removes negative feelings blocking our true potential; by restoring vagal functioning, we can naturally shift our behavior to get the most out of life.

Summary Notes

The Autonomic Nervous System

“It doesn’t matter how much you drive around. You will never get to where you want to go if you don’t have the right map.”

The autonomic nervous system is an integral part of the human nervous system, monitoring and regulating the activity of the visceral organs—heart, lungs, liver, gall bladder, stomach, intestines, kidneys, and sexual organs. Problems with any of these organs can arise from dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system.

There are two states of it: stress and relaxation. The stress response is a survival mechanism activated when we feel threatened; it mobilizes our body to prepare to fight or flee. When we have won the fight and neutralized the threat or gotten far enough away so that we are no longer in danger, our relaxation response kicks in. We remain in this relaxed state until the next threat appears.

While this mechanism is helpful at times, a continually stressful lifestyle can cause us to get stuck in the stress state, even when the threat or danger has passed.

Restore Social Engagement

“[...] social engagement requires the ability to both look and listen. When you are talking with someone, you can sense whether or not he is socially engaged by how much he looks at you, how well he listens to you, and how well he can understand what you are saying.”

When we are together with other people who are socially engaged, we tend to feel better. On the other hand, when we do not have enough positive social interactions with others, we can easily become stressed, depressed, asocial, or even antisocial.

We consider “normal” human behavior to be an expression of positive social values, like helping others, not being selfish, caring, etc. Our actions should be beneficial for our own survival and well-being, as well as for the well-being of others.

Changes in the pattern of tensions in our facial muscles create our facial expressions, which communicate different emotions and reflect our internal states in terms of health or illness. Ideally, changes in facial expressions are spontaneous and reflect the flow of changing emotions and thoughts.

When we change facial expression, this gives us the “feel of the face.” Nerves of the muscle and skin of the face play a role in listening to and understanding what is being said, enabling us to take part in a conversation. This is also crucial to facilitating social engagement.

The vagus is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body. It is responsible for such varied tasks as heart rate, sweating, muscle movements in the mouth, hence speech. It has also hormonal effects, which affect our mood and mental state. Practicing how to activate the vagus nerve, can help us be more resilient and cope with challenging and stressful situations. 

The vagus nerve consists of two branches: ventral (front) and dorsal (back). The front branch sits at the top of the spinal cord and under the brain. Stimulating the front nerve helps more oxygen to be absorbed into the lungs while stimulating the back nerve causes less oxygen to be absorbed.

When we feel safe, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve supports rest or calm activity.

Optimal health—both physical and mental—is possible only when we have a well-functioning ventral branch of the vagus nerve. Proper exercises and techniques should help most people move from either stress or shutdown to a state of social engagement.

Actions to take

The salamander exercises

“You can utilize side-bending movements in your thoracic vertebrae in order to release muscular tensions between your ribs and thoracic spine. This contributes to the freedom of movement of your ribs and promotes optimal breathing.”

The “Salamander Exercises” progressively increase flexibility in the thoracic spine, freeing up movement in the joints between the individual ribs and the sternum. This will increase your breathing capacity, help reduce a forward head posture by bringing your head back into better alignment and reduce scoliosis (abnormal spine curvature).

Eighty percent of the fibers of the vagus nerve are afferent (sensory) fibers, which means that they bring information back from the body to the brain, while only 20 percent are efferent (motor) fibers that carry instructions from the brain to the body. 

Some of the afferent fibers monitor the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. By improving our breathing pattern with these exercises, we tell the brain that we are safe and that our visceral organs are functioning properly. This, in turn, facilitates ventral vagal activity.

But which comes first? Does a limited breathing pattern result from a dysfunctional ventral vagus, or is a lack of ventral vagus function caused by feedback from a less than optimal breathing pattern?

If there are tensions in the respiratory diaphragm and the muscles that move the ribs, feedback from the afferent vagal nerves monitoring those movements will report abnormal breathing. This may prevent a state of ventral vagal activity, just as restoring ventral vagal activity can improve the physiological condition; in practice, improving either one is helpful, no matter which came first.

Actions to take

Massage for Migraines

“Because you are working on nerves on the surface of the muscle, a light touch is usually sufficient to release the tension in the entire muscle. Rather than massaging the entire muscle, as in ordinary massage, it is usually enough to simply massage the trigger points. You do not need to work hard or press deep into the body.”

Massaging trigger points deeply or with a lot of force is usually painful and can be counterproductive. Under excessive pressure, the body does not feel safe, and the autonomic nervous system is put into a state of sympathetic (stress) activation.

This is not harmful, but it is inefficient because it takes time for the body to settle down again. Make a few small circles on the trigger point. Then stop and wait until you notice a nervous system reaction in the form of a sigh or a swallow. Within a few minutes, the intensity of the pain should start to diminish or disappear. You can repeat the treatment whenever relief from a migraine is needed.

Actions to take

Twist and Turn for the Trapezius

“You will have a more even tone in all the muscle fibers of the three parts of your trapezius. Then, when you stand or sit, your head will glide back and up naturally by itself, reducing FHP [forward head posture] and improving your posture.”

The Twist and Turn Exercise improves the tone of a flaccid trapezius muscle and balances each of its three parts with the other two parts. It also helps to lengthen the spine, improve breathing, and correct forward head posture (FHP). This, in turn, often alleviates shoulder and back pain.

This exercise can benefit anyone, not just those with FHP. It takes less than one minute to do, and the feeling of positive change is immediate. It is a good idea to take a moment to do this exercise whenever you have been sitting for a while and to repeat it regularly from time to time.

Every time you do the exercise, you will experience improved breathing and posture, and its positive effects are cumulative. The idea behind this exercise is neither to strengthen nor to stretch the trapezius muscle. The assumption is that the muscle is strong enough and just needs the stimulation of the nerves to flaccid muscle fibers. You are waking them up so that they can take over their share of the work.

Actions to take

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