In this article we explore part of the body’s nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system and in particular the functioning of the vagus nerve. This nerve plays an important role in helping you to slow down and relax.
If you want to skip the theory and get practical, jump to the “Improve your ability to relax” section below.
Your Body’s Nervous System
Your levels of activation are governed by your autonomic nervous system (ANS) which regulates your body’s systems in order to manage the demands of your everyday life.
The ANS is a part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is one of two parts of our overall nervous system. The other being the central nervous system (CNS) which integrates information, together with coordinating and influencing the activity of all parts of our body.
The PNS consists of all the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord (which houses the CNS). The main role of the PNS is to connect the CNS to the rest of the body (e.g our muscles, organs and the rest of the body).
The PNS also consists of the somatic nervous system (SNS) which is under voluntary control. It enables us to control our movement via controlling our muscles and it receives information from our senses.
The other part of the PNS is the ANS which self-regulates and influences the functioning of our involuntary organs such as the heart, lungs and digestive system.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The two sections of the ANS are the sympathetic and parasympathetic sections.
- Sympathetic: Activates and prepares the body to meet challenges (fight or flight). Like the gas / accelerator pedal in a car.
- Parasympathetic: Restores our body and maintains the body’s resting condition (rest-and-digest and tend-and-befriend). Like the break pedal in a car.
The parasympathetic nervous system is like a decelerator or break pedal that helps us to slow down and relax.
The parasympathetic nervous system uses neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine to decrease the heart rate, blood pressure and slow our breathing. This deceleration is controlled by the vagus nerve and termed “vagal break“.
The wandering nerve (Vagus is Latin for wanderer) originates at the base of the brain and branches its way down through the body into the digestive system. In this article, we will focus on the Ventral Vagal Complex part of the Vagus nerve (VVC).
Functions of the Vagus nerve
It is considered that the Vagus nerve is a key activator of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system restores our body and maintains the body’s resting condition (rest-and-digest and tend-and-befriend).
More specifically the vagus nerve provides the following functions:
- Helps regulate our heart rate and breathing (slows them)
- Maintains the functioning of our digestion system, including the contraction of the stomach and intestine muscles
- Sends information from our intestines and other organs to our brain
- Prevents excess inflammation by regulating our immune system
Christopher Bergland, states:
“From a simplified evolutionary perspective, one could speculate that our ancestors relied on the sympathetic nervous system to kickstart neurobiological responses needed to hunt, gather, and ward off enemies. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system probably fortified our innate drive to nurture close-knit human bonds, procreate, and build survival-based cooperative and supportive communities.”
Our brain aims to maintain homeostasis which is achieved by creating a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system is constantly on the ready to activate us, although our parasympathetic system is there to counteract this activation. This is a bit like a tug-of-war.
In the modern workplace, our sympathetic nervous system can be put into a hyperactivated state, which can mean we lose homeostasis and can end up spending too much time experiencing stress.
Factors that can contribute to this hyperactivated state include constant change, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, not to mention constant interruptions, lack of social connection and an absence of a sense of belonging.
Over time this hyperactivated state can weaken the vagus nerve and its ability to ensure that the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the sympathetic nervous system (the vagal brake is weakened).
Vagus Nerve Tone and Activity
The activity (or strength) of the vagus nerve is known as vagal tone and its effective functioning in regulating the heart is known as cardiac vagal control (CVC).
Higher CVC is associated with:
- Our ability to manage stress and our vulnerability to stress
- Enhancing your Rider’s executive functioning, for example, emotional regulation, sustained attention, analytical thinking
- An increased amount of positive emotions
- Social engagement
- Improved physical and mental health including a greater sense of well-being
- It is even considered that higher CVC is associated with wiser reasoning and less biased judgments as it promotes a state in which we are more self-distanced (consider others) rather than being self-immersed (egocentric)
Improve your ability to relax
You can improve vagal tone with the following practices. You can learn more about these practices in this digital course.
- Breathing exercises – also see below.
- Exposure to cold
- Physical Exercise – especially Yoga
- Connecting in-person with others
- Flow experiences
- Playing wind musical instruments (especially clarinet)
Simple breathing exercise
Duration: Perform for at least 3-5 minutes. Sit or stand with the middle of your ear, shoulder and hip in line. Keep your chest raised and shoulders back without being uncomfortable or stiff.
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 3-7
- Pause for a count of 2
- Breathe out through the nose or mouth slowly for a count of 4-10
- Pause for a count of 2
You can increase or decrease the duration of the breaths. The most important factor is that the exhalation is longer than the inhalation (whilst being comfortable and relaxing).
Measuring Vagal Tone
Heart rate and Heart rate variability can be used to determine ANS function and vagal tone. A low HRV score and a higher resting HR are linked to low vagal tone.
You learn more about stress and energy management in this digital course.
You can learn more about how to measure your HRV using the FOCUSWRX application here.