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Calming the Nervous system through Breath and the Vagus nerve

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

A simple and effective way to calm the nervous system is through controlling the breath. Yogi’s knew this over 5000 years ago, western science has only recently caught up.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, it contains not just neurons which send signals from the brain to body but also neurons which feedback signals from the body to the brain.

The vagus nerve innervates the heart and the lungs, as well as other systems and organs throughout the body. As we inhale, the sympathetic nervous system causes heart rate to speed up slightly, as we exhale, the vagus nerve causes the heart to slow through the parasympathetic nervous system. Therefore, as the exhale is directly controlled by the vagus nerve, just by, increasing the length of the exhalation we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system which is our calm, ‘rest and digest’ state, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’.

There are many ways to control the breath but the easiest and most effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve is by lengthening our exhale to twice the length of our inhale. 3 minutes of this activates our ‘rest and digest’ state.

How to use the Breath to reset the Nervous system through the vagus nerve:

1. Either sit up tall on a chair with a straight back, or lie down comfortably on your back, use pillows to get comfortable, You can also do this in bed to help you fall asleep.

2. Close the mouth and breathe in and out through the nose.

3. Put a hand on your belly and breathe into the belly instead of the chest, so your belly gently rises when you breathe in, and gently flattens when you breath out.

4 Notice your breath, count the inhale.

5 Now gently extend the exhale until it is twice the length of the inhale. For example if your inhale was 4 counts, aim to extend your exhale to 8 counts, if the inhale was 3 counts, extend the exhale to to 6 counts. Do this gradually creating no tension in the breath.

6 When you have managed to extend the exhale. Sit and continue for at least 3 minutes. It can help to really focus on the breath, notice where you feel it in your body, notice it starts to become smoother.

Other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve are:

1. Humming, singing, gargling or chanting (See why the yogis chanted?)

2. Washing your face with cold water

3. Meditation* or Mindfulness

*If you struggle with Meditation, try Mindfulness first or do any activity you enjoy in which you can engross yourself in so much that your thoughts don’t wander, such as listening to a piece of music you really love, playing music, doodling, painting a picture, gardening, or playing with a pet. Meditation isn’t usually a good idea if you are in a depressive state unless you are used to it so don’t beat yourself up if you find it’s not for you, it probably isn’t right now. Focus on anything you love you can immerse yourself in.

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