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4 vagus nerve exercises to transform how you handle stress

Bird's eye view of interesting patterns in a cornfield
- Oct 03, 2022

 

Chronic stress can make your nervous system hyper-responsive to signs of danger, leading to the sense of being on edge even when you're perfectly safe. In this state, ordinary habits feel like mountains to climb. Your body and mind are receiving signals that you must fight for survival, not focus on your work or sleep through the night. 

Over the last decade, research increasingly shows that vagus nerve exercises, like breath work, meditation, and certain types of vocalization, can create measurable changes in nervous system function. 

When you stimulate the vagus nerve, you set off a cascade of effects that turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, naturally regulating stress’s impacts on the body. 

Simple vagus nerve exercises you can do at home work to enhance focus, support restful sleep, and make you less reactive to stress more generally. 

Training your vagus nerve can change how you feel immediately, but its effects can become even more pronounced with consistent practice, leading to changes you can measure (and feel) within minutes. 

Why the vagus nerve is a lever for stress resilience

The vagus nerve refers to thousands of fibers extending from the brainstem and into the internal organs. Since “vagus” is Latin for “wandering,” the name describes the winding path this network travels throughout the body, extending from the brain stem, traveling to the heart, lungs, kidneys, digestive tract, kidneys, and spleen.

The vagus nerve is sometimes called the body's information superhighway because it acts as a bridge connecting the brain to the inner organs. This bridge runs in two directions: the vagus tunes into organ function and transmits this information to the brain. But it also sends data from the brain to control organ function, affecting heart rate, breathing, reflexes like swallowing or sneezing, and other automatic processes. 

By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, vagus nerve stimulation slows the heart and breathing rate, relaxes the muscles, and more. Through these physiological changes, vagus nerve exercises jumpstart a cascade of events that tell the body that it's safe to enter a state of rejuvenation and recovery. 

When you stimulate your vagus nerve, you create a positive feedback loop: the state of your body supports mental clarity, and this calm mental state reinforces physiological safety. In this way, the vagus nerve acts like a lever you can pull to signal safety to your body in a language it recognizes. 

In recent years, studies have shown that electronic vagal stimulation can help with conditions like depression and epilepsy. Both electronic vagus nerve stimulation and at-home vagus nerve exercises improve what’s known as vagal tone, or the ability of the vagus nerve to regulate the heartbeat. With these improvements, the body can more rapidly return to a parasympathetic state after a stressful encounter.

Being able to transition into peak recovery after stress is key to robust focus, high performance, and everything else we care about. It’s an indicator that the body is adaptive enough to find equilibrium even in the face of demanding internal or external stimuli.

What does your heart rate variability say about your nervous system?

Many of the vagus nerve fibers connect directly to the heart, making heart rate variability (HRV) one of the most reliable ways to understand how well the vagus nerve is working (vagal tone). In this way, HRV also indicates whether your nervous system is balanced. 

A healthy heart doesn't beat at a consistent rate. Instead, it changes depending on the moment-to-moment demands on the body. HRV is a measure of the time intervals between heartbeats, measured in milliseconds. 

According to a comprehensive review on HRV biofeedback:

High HRV signals that the variance between heartbeats is more significant, meaning that the body is fluidly transitioning between states of activation (sympathetic) and states of rejuvenation (parasympathetic). 

Low HRV signals less significant variance between heartbeats. The nervous system is struggling to respond to stress or quickly regain balance after the stressor passes. Without full recovery, the physiological pressures of stress linger, and you don’t get the rejuvenation needed for focus or high physical performance. 

HRV as a performance enhancer

Although many factors impact HRV—such as age, time of day, and certain health conditions–you can use these measurements to understand the effects of your daily lifestyle and diet on your health. 

When tracking long-term trends in your HRV, you’ll be able to detect patterns between diet, lifestyle choices, and the way you feel, which can be a powerful source of optimization data. 

Since a high HRV signals your body’s ability to find balance in the face of all kinds of demands, HRV is also a marker of overall physical fitness. As a result, when you influence your HRV, you create ripple effects that can improve multiple dimensions of your health simultaneously. 

Measuring HRV

The gold standard tool for measuring HRV is the electrocardiogram (ECG). Using ECGs, specialists can indirectly measure how the nervous system regulates the heart. 

While this kind of measurement isn't exactly practical, you can now find biofeedback wearables for your chest, wrist, ankles, and fingers.

If you're interested in measuring your HRV, the most important metric to keep in mind is this: the greater your high-frequency HRV (Hf-HRV), the more you’re entering parasympathetic states and the better your performance and recovery. 

For more information, read our HRV 101 guide, where you’ll learn more about the links between HRV and stress recovery. 

Vagus nerve exercises: Platforms for stress resilience 

You can use nerve exercises to influence your HRV, with or without tracking the changes. Doing HRV measurements along with these exercises can help you optimize your health, but they’re useful in part because they help you influence your vagus nerve at home and without the need for any equipment.  

Vagus nerve exercises work by grounding attention on the body rather than the racing mind. Our problem-solving minds love to fixate on what’s not in our control. But as many wisdom traditions affirm, this is the root cause of so much suffering. Vagus nerve exercises exert powerful psychological effects because they train you to cement your attention on what’s in your control at the moment.

When practiced consistently, these exercises lower the influence of the sympathetic nervous system within minutes, as measured by changes in HRV. When we train HRV, we train our body’s ability to adapt to internal and external change. This level of adaptability evokes peak states, like flow – that zone of present-focused genius where self-criticism and judgment cease to dominate attention because we become so immersed in the task at hand. 

As you read about these exercises, remember that consistency goes a long way. Regular or everyday practice will condition your body to respond to these exercises more significantly and at a faster rate. Over time, you’ll put the same amount of time and energy into the practices, while their effects become more pronounced.

Exercise #1: Controlled breathing 

Breathing is one of the most rapid ways to put yourself in the driver’s seat of your experience.

When you change the dynamics of the breath, you intervene in feedback loops that might otherwise intensify stress. During the inhalation phase of breathing, the heart rate accelerates. When you exhale, the vagus nerve slows down the beat-to-beat intervals of the heart via its effects on the parasympathetic nervous system [source]. The slower the rate of your exhale, the calmer you feel. 

Because breathing influences stress levels, researchers have explored how breathing affects HRV and even decision-making. In their work published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, researchers compared the way different types of breathing impacted subjects' responses to a stress-inducing test. One group performed a "skewed" breathing pattern (longer exhales compared to inhales) while another didn't. 

While the task significantly raised physical stress markers among the second group, those who performed the skewed breathing pattern answered the test questions more quickly and accurately and with fewer signs of physiological stress. 

The study suggests that even brief changes in breathing dynamics can reduce the impacts of stress on the body, changing the way we respond to challenges.

Quickly shift your breathing: 4-7-8 Technique

Functional medicine practitioner Dr. Andrew Weil created the 4-7-8 breathing technique based on breath control methods used in the ancient pranayama tradition. By helping you quickly slow down the rate of your exhale, the technique is one of the most straightforward and fast-acting types of breathwork. 

Researchers have proved its therapeutic properties across many contexts, including pain during childbirth [source] or after surgery [source]. It’s also useful for discharging tension and supporting focus during or before creative expression [source]. 

How to do it: 

  • Sit comfortably with your back supported. Put your tongue where your gums meet your upper front teeth, and keep it there throughout the exercise.
  • Start by exhaling completely, making a "woosh" sound.
  • For four seconds, inhale quietly through your nose, focusing on breathing from the diaphragm rather than the chest.
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • Exhale audibly through rounded lips, holding for eight seconds. 
  • This is one round. 

The essential point of the exercise is to extend your exhales for twice as long as your inhales. The recommended starting point is four rounds to feel a shift, adding more as you gain experience with the practice.

Exercise #2: Singing, humming, and chanting 

The vagus nerve controls the muscles in the larynx (voice box) that allows you to produce sound. Mechanically, the very act of singing requires that your exhales become longer than your inhales. As a result, when you sing, hum, or chant, you create vibrations that automatically stimulate muscles in the throat that talk to the vagus nerve.

These effects make sense in light of our collective history with music. Evidence from the Paleolithic era suggests our species has been making music for at least 40,000 years [source]. 

Beyond singing or humming, simply listening to music stimulates the vagus nerve. Music psychologists have repeatedly proven that certain structural or tonal aspects of music can lead to reliable emotional and physiological responses in listeners.

For example, a recent study called "Music as Medicine" explored the way 7,581 participants used music to self-regulate. They tested whether specific qualities of music (like tempo, genre, lyrical content, etc.) reliably induced stress relief, and if so, how long a person must listen to enjoy these effects. 

They discovered what they called a therapeutic dose of music: a specific set of qualities a song needs to reliably induce concentration, relaxation, or happiness. When it came to relaxation, they found the best music had a slow tempo, no lyrics, and a simple melody. They found the ideal listening time to be 13 minutes. 

When participants listened to music with these qualities: 

  • 79.20% reported less muscle tension
  • 84.31% had fewer negative thoughts
  • 91.69% felt a greater sense of contentment
  • 82.30% had better sleep [source]

These findings show that music’s benefits go way beyond entertainment or self-expression: musical creation or listening can also help you naturally shift the state of your body, process emotion, and take control over the way you feel. 

Using music for stress relief

One way to stimulate your vagus nerve via music is to check out the therapeutic playlist used in the study above. The researchers documented success with this playlist for relaxation, concentration, processing sadness, and increasing happiness. Music “with sonic vitamins added '' (as they put it) can also help with focus or create a tranquil atmosphere before bed. 

Thanks to its soothing effects on the nervous system, music may even influence your exercise performance. Research suggests that listening to music during exercise promotes improved activation of the parasympathetic nervous system during recovery, meaning that it can help you transition faster into rest-and-digest mode after an intense workout. 

Faster recovery helps you enjoy more of exercise’s benefits, such as improved mental clarity and stamina while minimizing the negative impacts of stress on the body. 

Exercise #3: Metta meditation practice

When you struggle to focus, how often is it related to fear of judgment or criticism? Nearly everyone has been affected at some point by “social evaluative stress,” the tension induced by performance anxiety or criticism from friends or family members. 

Because this form of stress is a common part of life, social psychologists have been interested in methods that buffer its negative effects on the body. Previous research showed that the trait of self-compassion, or the ability to show kindness and understanding to one’s self, had stress-relieving properties even in the face of social evaluation [source]. 

Building on this information, in a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers tested whether Buddhist self-compassion meditations practiced over 40 days for five minutes changed participants’ responses to a stress test. These self-compassion exercises were based on a practice called “Metta,” the Pali word for loving -kindness, which is an ancient Buddhist meditation aimed to evoke states of love for self and others. 

Participants were randomly assigned to either an attention-only meditation group, a group that had no training, and one that practiced the self-compassion exercises. Those who practiced self-compassion meditation exhibited fewer signs of physiological stress. Their HRV changed less in response to the stress than was seen in the control groups, suggesting that their training increased their attentiveness while allowing them to better emotionally self-regulate in the face of stressors. 

From a subjective standpoint, this translated into changes in their approach to handling stress. Rather than seek control over their stressors, the participants became less defensive and experienced greater acceptance and ease while contending with them. 

These results are even more interesting, given that the vagus nerve has been called the “nerve of compassion” by a Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, Dr. Dacher Keltner, who has done groundbreaking research into the strong role of the vagus nerve in compassion. 

Try Metta Yourself

To practice Metta, slow down your breath, get comfortable, and remove distractions as you normally do in meditation. 

Instead of focusing solely on bodily sensations or on quieting your mind, bring to mind a person you love in a light-hearted way. It might be a parent, a daughter, an old friend, a dog, etc. 

Try to focus on an uncomplicated relationship, so you’re not distracted by charged emotions. 

As you think about this person you bring to mind phrases like:

  • "May you be happy."
    • "May you be healthy."
    • "May you know that your joys and struggles are shared by others."

    After focusing on a loved one, it’s usually recommended that you shift those feelings onto yourself, sending love and understanding for your own experience. You can gradually expand your attention, moving to people you feel neutral about, such as strangers, or fellow members of your city or country, eventually bringing all beings into your thoughts. 

    Research into Metta’s biological effects has grown substantially over the last decade, with studies showing its utility for pain relief and anxiety, to name just two examples.

    Exercise #4: Touch as a stress balm

    You can also stimulate your vagus nerve through touch. Our fifth sense, touch, has powerful effects on the nervous system. 

    Depending on factors like speed, pressure, and vibration, touch exerts physiological and biochemical changes that enhance well-being, sharpen focus, and enhance pain resilience, among other profound effects (source)

    Touch stimulates the vagus nerve because of the interconnections between vagal fibers and pressure detectors in the skin. The vagal fibers talk to the emotional systems in the brain involved in the regulation of the nervous system and secretion of stress hormones like cortisol [source]. 

    Practical benefits of touch 

    Although there’s a large body of research pointing to the health benefits of massage therapy, you don't need a professional massage to find stress relief through touch.

    Giving someone else a massage stimulates the same pressure receptors in the fingers you activate when you receive touch. Getting or giving a hug or massage or petting a beloved dog or cat can be calming for the same reasons. 

    The Apollo wearable soothes the nervous system through the power of touch. The body responds to the Apollo wearable like it does to touch because its vibrations mimic natural oscillation patterns between the heart and lungs activated during deep breathing.

    These patterns have been consistently shown to improve HRV, supporting nervous system balance, stress resilience, and cognitive performance [source]. 

    Read our article about Scheduling with the Apollo for guidance on how you can effortlessly use the Apollo wearable to help you better adapt to changing demands throughout your day. 

    Vagus nerve exercises help you thrive as an ancient body in an increasingly novel world

    As humans, our rich and complex emotional lives are products of the interactions between ancient emotional structures (like the amygdala) and more recently evolved problem-solving parts of the brain (the neocortex).

    The neo-cortex may be able to rationalize away the cumulative impacts of stress, but its effects still linger on the body. Even everyday stressors take a significant toll on the nervous system, leading to far-reaching imbalances that impair our capacity to relax, focus, sleep or perform at our best. 

    Sending signals to your body, such as  "you've got this" or "you’re safe” are some of the most profound ways to support yourself. 

    Simple practices, breath work, meditation, or singing, can help you communicate with your nervous system directly. These tools help you change your state within minutes, so you don't need to wait for outer conditions to change before you feel better. This foundational kind of safety lets you bring the most grounded and effective version of yourself to everything you do.