fbpx The Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve | CCNM-ICC

We all experience some degree of stress and anxiety in our life. For some, stress can feel more constant and/or be difficult to manage. For our patients living with cancer, it is common to experience feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, fear, and stress. This is a time in which our body is experiencing many physical changes and there is often a degree of tremendous uncertainty.  

The way in which we deal with stress and regulate our nervous system can have profound effects on our overall health. Regulating our nervous system can be difficult because our body is programmed to protect us from perceived threats, putting us into a state of “fight or flight”. When we’re in this state of increased stress, we can experience physical changes such as an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, upset stomach, and difficulty relaxing. When this happens, it can be difficult to think our way back to the present moment.  

Thankfully, our bodies are equipped with a powerful tool that we can use to our advantage and experience less thinking, stress and anxiety: the vagus nerve.  

The vagus nerve, also known as the “wanderer nerve”, is the longest nerve in the body. It travels from the brain to the colon, stimulating most of the organs located in the abdomen and chest, such as the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, spleen, and intestines. This nerve carries important information between the brain and organs and by stimulating it, we can help our body move from a state of “fight or flight” into “rest and digest”. 

By stimulating the vagus nerve, we can also support our health by reducing stress, controlling pain, improving sleep, balancing mood, and regulating our immune, digestive, and cardiovascular systems. 

Here are 5 easy and effective ways to stimulate your vagus nerve to help regulate your nervous system and promote relaxation: 

  • Cold water exposure, such as taking a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face. 
  • Rhythmic movements of your body, such as rocking or tapping. 
  • Deep, slow, belly breathing, making sure that your exhale is longer than your inhale. For example, you can try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Close your lips and inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth making a whoosh sound for a count of eight. Then repeat for a minimum of 3-5 cycles. 
  • Humming or gargling water to stimulate the vocal cords at the back of the throat. 
  • Laughing. A few ways you can incorporate more laughter into your day include watching a funny show or movie, connecting with friends, or trying laughter yoga/meditation. 

Adding one of these practices into your daily routine can be an excellent way to improve overall health, while building resilience to stress and calming down your nervous system. 

Author: Sydne Valiquette, CCNM Integrative Cancer Centre Intern