Self-care improves vagal tone

Aug 01, 2021

Vagus nerve series:

In this post we are going to explore ‘manually’ stimulating our autonomic nervous system to regulate and respond to our emotions and how I believe this is THE main component of a resilience practice and is achieved through SELF-CARE. 


Self-care improves vagal tone 

Your ability to self or co-regulate and manage anxiety(increased arousal of the sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight) by taking actions that activates your parasympathetic nervous system to bring you back into a balanced state physically and emotionally has direct affect on your quality of life, how you experience the world around and how you experience being you.


When the vagus nerve is stimulated it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for lowering cortisol and putting your body and nervous system back into a state of rest and digest. Having high vagal tone means that your body can relax more quickly after you have been triggered and are feeling stressed. 

Connection - touch - diet - laughing - singing - exercise - meditation - deep breathing - cold exposure are all ways of ‘manually’ stimulating your vagus nerve. They are all forms of self-care, they are practices that can make you feel resilient in your time of need…


Let’s dive a little deeper into understanding the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system because our biology shapes the way we experience the world and our experience of feeling safe and being able to connect and when we understand how our nervous system works we can work with it rather than feeling a victim of it. 


We can become actively engaged in brining ourselves back into regulation(wellbeing/rest and digest) from disregulation(triggered/fight or flight) but we can not do this if we do not have the awareness of what it feels like to be in different states of nervous system activation or the knowledge about how we can move from one state to the other and override the normally involuntary nervous systems. 


The autonomic nervous system is made up of three parts that regulates involuntary physiological processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and arousal; the sympathetic nervous system(SNS) - fight or flight), parasympathetic nervous system(PNS) rest and digest) and the enteric nervous system(ENS) the bowel the second brain.


Both the PNS and SNS are active during Inspiration (breathing in) the SNS dilates the airways allowing appropriate inflow of air and it is active in regulating blood flow. These processes happen involuntarily meaning we don’t have to think every time we breathe or to pump blood around our bodies. But you can begin to see how with consciously breathing deeply and slowly we can override the bodies automatic response to stress. Once we are aware of the signals of overstimulation of the SNS we can get back to a state of wellbeing through manually activating the vagus nerve.


The vagus nerve makes up 75% of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) it is the wondering nerve. A non exhaustive list of its wonderings and functions; present in most of our major organs, contributes to motor function of the heart, It receives information about temperature, pain, it is responsible for rest and digest, relaxing cardiac function, effecting the respiratory cycle on exhalation. It starts at the brain stem and wonders through the body receiving input and providing feedback between the brain to the body and from the body to the brain. As I said earlier high vagal tone means that your body can relax more quickly after you have been triggered and are feeling stressed.


The enteric nervous system (ENS) the second brain within the digestive organs ) is responsible for: control   of motility, regulation of gastrointestinal endocrine cells, defence reactions, enters-enteric reflexes, ENS and CNS(central nervous system) interactions. This nervous system functions independently from the CNS but is affected by the vagus nerve and interacts with SNS. When you are triggered and are in fight or flight with sympathetic nervous system being stimulated your blood rushes to your heart as it pumps more intensely, with the redirection of the blood you will experience a reduced function in your digestive system. SO we use our breath, touch, co-regulation through connection, to reduce our heart rates, activate our vagus nerve and get back to a balanced state of wellbeing. 


I will continue sharing more about the science of self-care and the role of the vagus nerve in another blog post.


For me this goes hand in hand with your resilience practice. 

Imagine you have been triggered and are feeling anxious because you have been given a difficult deadline at work or have suddenly become aware of the time and realise that you have a lot to do with your kids before bedtime. Your heart rate quickens, you feel your jaw become tense, the tone of your thoughts changes and you are worried, stressed out and angry. Your sympathetic nervous system has become activated, you are experiencing higher levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. 

But then you stop.

You take a deep, long full breath into your belly, you swallow and release your breath, you do this a couple of times, you have stimulated your vagus nerve and already beginning to feel more calm.

You touch behind your ears, running your hands along your neck, shoulders and arms,

You keep breathing deeply and fully,

You yawn, move your jaw around and grab a glass of water,

Your feeling more relaxed, if there’s someone nearby you grab them for a lovely 20 second cuddle to release oxytocin, you keep breathing deeply


You return to the situation with a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh state of mind and in a relaxed body. Stimulating your vagus nerve and activating your parasympathetic nervous system helps you to respond to the situation in a resilient way, giving you a chance to communicate and carry on with in your integrity. This is not about being in a perpetual state of well-being (ventral vagal - i'll talk more about this next time) as in any moment of the day you are constantly flitting between different nervous states, your power comes from knowing you are moving from one state of being to the other and to transition between them without getting stuck in sympathetic. 


I work with my clients to help them create a healthy pause between being stimulated and responding with integrity. Knowing the biology behind our emotions can help during the process of changing one’s behaviour in how one responds to life. I spend a huge amount of my time researching and reading about the neuroscience of self-care, exercise, resilience and behavioural change. Fusing science with intuition makes for a powerful combination that creates lasting results for my clients. 

Next in the vagus nerve series i'll be talking more about the experience of being in different vagal states and sharing more about the polyvagal theory.

Check out these links and books and I encourage you to do your own research for more information on the vagus nerve.

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: This content ( description, links, and comments) cannot and does not contain medical/health advice. The medical/health information is provided for general informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. THE USE OR RELIANCE OF ANY INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THIS CONTENT IS SOLELY AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Activate your vagus nerve: Dr Navaz Habib       autonomic nervous system