4 vagus nerve activities for anxiety and panic

There are a lot of ways you may read about how to decrease panic attacks or anxiety in general. There are quick and effective ways to decrease panic related symptoms by activating your vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is also known as your calming nervous system. Your vagus nerve runs from your brain down to your stomach. It is responsible for regulating your heart rate and breathing amongst other internal functions. By intentionally using a tool to activate your vagus nerve it will help calm your nervous system and body thus decrease panic related symptoms. 

You feel your heart racing out of control, your palms get clammy, you get the chills, you start shaking, and then you feel like you are hyperventilating. It feels like you are having a heart attack and you have no idea how to make it stop. It feels like it is going to last forever. There may have even been times where you ended up in the emergency room. This is a panic attack.  Learn below what to do to decrease these symptoms when they appear:

Vagus nerve tip # 1: Vergence Therapy

            The first way to activate your Vagus nerve is by practicing vergence. Vergence is a Brainspotting therapy technique that I teach almost all my clients that come in with anxiety or panic related symptoms. It is a quick and effective way to activate your vagus nerve to help calm your body. How does Vergence calm your body and decrease anxiety? The 6 muscles that hold your eyes in place are called your Extraocular muscles or EOMs. Your extraocular muscles consist of many nerve endings and is the source of your oculocardiac reflex (OCR) (Grand 2013). The oculocardiac reflex is an immediate way to calm your body. When you look back and forth between two things (one close and one far) you are activating your OCR and in turn activating your vagus nerve. 

How to use Vergence Therapy
  • Hold a pen or your finger about 6 inches in front of your face and hold your eyes there for about three seconds
  • Look through the pen to a point in the distance about 10 feet away and hold your eyes on that point for about three seconds.
  • Return your eyes to the pen ( close point) for three seconds.
  • Repeat shifting your focus from the pen to the far away point for about two to three minutes.
  • You can set a timer on your phone to help with the time!
  • You can watch a video here if you need further assistance.
  • Side note: You do not have to necessarily hold something in front of you. I have had people use this on an airplane by looking at the seat in front of them (close) to the bathroom sign (further away). The goal is to be able to move your eyes from something close to something further away- that is what makes this skill effective. So, as long as you have two focal points (one close and one far away) to shift your eyes between, this can be effective. 

Tip # 2: Mammalian Dive Response.

The second way to activate your Vagus nerve is called the Mammalian Dive Response. Humans have a mammalian diving response that immediately gets activated when you are submerged in cold water. The dive response will help slow down your heart rate and breathing, and ultimately calm your body and decrease panic. 

How to utilize the Dive Response
  • Fill up a bowl with ice cold water 
  •   Submerge your head into the bowl for 15 seconds 
  • Side note: You can practice this in different ways. 1) is to take a very cold shower. While you are standing under the cold water- hold your breath for a few seconds. It is the combination of cold water and holding your breath that makes the dive response effective. 2) you can buy one of those sinus gel masks to keep in the freezer- and then put it over your eyes/temple. 3) you can use a rag and run it over very cold water. 
  • If you need further assistance you can watch a video here

Vagus nerve tip # 3: Use your vocal cords:

The third way to activate your Vagus nerve is by using your vocal cords. Your Vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords. You can activate the vagus nerve this way by singing loudly, humming, or gurgling water. If you have ever been to a yoga class, at the end of classes they will often do a chant “hummmm” by doing so you are activating your vagus nerve which is going to be very calming. 

Keep in mind this is something that you can practice no matter where you are which is why it can be effective for a lot of people. 

Tip # 4: Deep Breathing

The Fourth way to activate your vagus nerve is by doing Deep Breathing exercises. The goal is Slow deep breathes. 

How to practice deep breathing:
  • Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest 
  • While breathing in through your nose your hand on your belly should rise. The hand on your chest should remain still. 
  • Exhale through pursed lips slowly feeling the hand on your belly go down. Your exhale should be longer than your inhale.
  • Repeat. 

Blog Disclaimer – These posts are not meant to treat, diagnose, or serve as a replacement for therapy. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact your local crisis center or dial 911. Here are more immediate resources as well.

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