This post is in response to The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure by Christopher Bergland
ebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock
Medically accurate illustration of the vagus nerve.
Source: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock

All too often, the readily accessible power of the vagus nerve to lower anxiety and reduce inflammation is overlooked and underestimated. Over the years, I’ve written a wide range of Psychology Today blog posts that highlight practical ways to tap into the ability of your vagus nerve to combat the cortisol producing stress response of fight-or-flight.

In 1921, a German Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, Otto Loewi, discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German for “vagus substance”). This “vagus substance” was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter ever identified by scientists.

The vagus nerve is the prime driving force of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates our “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. On the flip side, to maintain homeostasis, the sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight-or-flight” response. Ideally, within your autonomic nervous system, the ongoing tug of war between these two polar opposite mechanisms creates a "yin-yang" type of harmony marked by homeostatic balance.

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.

Unfortunately, the Toffleresque “future shock” of the 21st-century digital age (marked by too much change in too short a time) is causing our evolutionary biology to short-circuit by throwing our individual and collective nervous systems out of balance.

Recent studies show that all too often, social media and other modern-day factors exacerbate perceived social isolation and feelings of being unworthy of love and belonging. Additionally, the individualistic "every man for himself" zeitgeist undermines collective “tending-and-befriending” and can put someone's “fight-or-flight” response in constant hyperdrive with no reprieve.

Luckily, there are some easily accessible and highly effective drug-free ways for you to activate the “vagusstuff” producing power of your parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating your vagus nerve.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) using an implanted device is one clinically proven way to achieve this outcome. But for some other practical, inexpensive, and readily available ways to stimulate your vagus nerve—I've curated a broad spectrum of empirical evidence into a one-stop-shop resource guide of vagal maneuvers anyone can use. All of the nine techniques listed below are in the locus of your control. They also don't cost a penny or necessarily require any high-tech gadgetry.

The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide by Christopher Bergland

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises
  2. Tonic Levels of Daily Physical Activity
  3. Face-to-Face Social Connectedness
  4. Narrative Expressive Journaling
  5. Gutsy Third Person Self-Talk
  6. Sense of Awe to Promote Small Self
  7. Upward Spiral via Loving-Kindness Meditation
  8. Superfluidity and Secular Transcendent Ecstasy
  9. Volunteering and Altruistic Generativity

Tracing the Genesis of The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide

Wellcome Library/Public Domain
Vagus means "wandering" in Latin. The vagus nerve is known as the "wandering nerve" because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way.
Source: Wellcome Library/Public Domain

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I spent countless hours monitoring my heart rate variability (HRV) and the robustness of my parasympathetic nervous system and vagal tone to make sure that I wasn’t overtraining. That said, until recently, I didn’t realize that my esoteric athletic knowledge of HRV feedback could be applied as a public health tool or as the foundation for creating a well-being prescriptive “survival guide” for Psychology Today readers by using holistic vagal maneuvers to stimulate the vagus nerve.

For some background: A few days ago, I read about a new study by Kyle Bourassa and colleagues at the University of Arizona in Tucson, "The Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure Following Marital Separation." The findings were published May 8 in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. 

The researchers found that a specific style of journal writing called “narrative expressive writing” helped to reduce the harmful cardiovascular effects of going through a divorce. In a statement, Bourassa described the findings. “The results suggest that the ability to create a structured narrative—not just re-experiencing emotions but making meaning out of them—allows people to process their feelings in a more adaptive way, which may in turn help improve their cardiovascular health.”

This study piqued my curiosity. However, I wanted to dig deeper and look for some universal themes beyond divorce or other research that linked narrative expressive journaling and cardiovascular health as marked by higher HRV with a better parasympathetic response.

Also, I was perplexed because, as far as I could tell, the Bourassa study didn’t discuss vagus nerve or vagal tone specifically. I’ve always associated HRV, the parasympathetic nervous system, and vagal tone as a triad that is intertwined. That said, adding a specific type of "expressive narrative writing" into this mix was a refreshing new angle with terrific and easy-to-apply prescriptive possibilities.

My initial attempt last week to unearth something fresh or useful that would complement Bourassa's findings was fruitless...I did a bunch of various google scholar searches but came up empty handed. Nonetheless, this study kept nagging at me. Over the past few days, I found myself ruminating about a possible link between narrative expressive writing and the vagus nerve whenever I was working out or my mind was wandering.

Last night, I tossed and turned because something in the back of my brain was persistently trying to connect the dots of the Bourassa study with other research I’ve reported on and to solve this riddle. Subconsciously, I knew there was some connection but my conscious mind couldn't break the enigma-like code by clicking all the tumblers into place to have an “Aha!” moment. It was frustrating. 

Finally, this morning, when I was on a long jog at sunrise, I had a "Duh!" moment when I realized something so obvious that I should have thought of it days ago...The new study by Bourassa et al. shares some important similarities to the well-known research by Fredrickson et al. on loving-kindness meditation (LKM), prosocial behaviors, HRV, and the vagus nerve.

The 2013 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone,” was published in Psychological Science. This groundbreaking research honed in on the vagus nerve and discovered that a high vagal tone index was part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health, and positive social connections.

Identifying this correlation prompted me to stop in my tracks and do a simple google search for “HRV loving kindness vagus nerve” on my smartphone. Voila! Right there was a holy grail type of study from 2016 by Igor Grossmann that had completely gone under my radar, “A Heart and A Mind: Self-Distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning.” (This study contains too much valuable food for thought to do justice by discussing here. I will explore Grossmann's hypotheses in future blog posts.

The reason I’m telling you this long-winded timeline is twofold. First, after skimming Grossmann's research on HRV, the parasympathetic nervous system, egocentric impulses, self-distancing, and the vagus nerve on a jogging trail this morning I had a mini “Eureka!” moment. During the rest of my jog, I made a quick mental list of “nine vagal maneuvers to optimize your heart rate variability and parasympathetic nervous system." Then I rushed home to my computer to type this blog post and get these ideas out there for others to digest. To be honest, I haven't had time to gestate them yet myself. 

Second, the aforementioned problem-solving experience I had over the past few days reaffirms one of my all time favorite quotations about the creative process by Arthur Koestler,

“The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flashes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface of consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.”

Anecdotally, I can reaffirm Koestler’s description of what it feels like to have a fresh insight because I just had one earlier this morning. Notably, as a science-based writer, I’ve found that after fastidiously gathering a lot of crystallized knowledge and filling my head with tons of empirical evidence, having an “Aha!” moment ultimately requires an incubation period that integrates fluid intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

From a neuroscientific perspective, I have a hunch that the process Koestler describes might rely on "unclamping” cerebral control of the prefrontal cortex and other cortical brain areas by allowing ideas to bubble up into consciousness from subcortical brain regions such as the basal ganglia and cerebellum. 

In closing, I know my compilation of nine vagal maneuvers to stimulate the vagus nerve may not be earth-shattering. Nevertheless, it felt “miraculous” after days of wrestling with free-floating and dissociated ideas about the vagus nerve to finally connect the dots in a new and hopefully useful way for readers like you. 

I’m not going to unpack all of the clinical studies, empirical evidence, and actionable advice for each of the bullet points in my fledgling Vagus Nerve Survival Guide right now. There’s too much material and the ideas need some time to marinate.

Over the next few weeks, I will tackle each of these nine vagal maneuvers in a separate Psychology Today blog post as part of a nine-part series. i.e. Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve, Tonic Levels of Daily Physical Activity and Your Vagus Nerve, etc. Stay tuned!

References

Kyle J. Bourassa, John J.B. Allen, Matthias R. Mehl, David A. Sbarra. The Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure Following Marital Separation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000475

B. E. Kok, K. A. Coffey, M. A. Cohn, L. I. Catalino, T. Vacharkulksemsuk, S. B. Algoe, M. Brantley, B. L. Fredrickson. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612470827

Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra, and Joseph Ciarrochi. A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 2016 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00068

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