Sing in the Shower to Make Friends With Your Vagus Nerve
7 ways to strengthen the vagus nerve and build resilience to emotional stress.
Posted March 17, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Ever sung in a choir? Sang "Happy Birthday" at a gathering of friends and family? Raised your voice in harmony with others while singing a hymn? It feels really good. There are many reasons for that and one has to do with the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve? The ”wandering” or vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It connects the brain and the gut, lungs, and heart. And it plays a critical role in helping us “rest and digest.”
Increasing the tone of the vagus nerve enables our body to relax faster after experiencing stress.1
And who couldn’t use some more of that in uncertain times when our normal routines and lifestyle are so disrupted?
It turns out that exercising and strengthening the vagus nerve is relatively simple. You don’t need to go to a gym or even leave the house. You can do it while at your computer or even laying down in bed. And with practice, you can learn to do it as a background activity while you wash dishes, make meals, and do other routine tasks. In fact, I’m doing it right now as I write this.
Here are some activities to strengthen the vagus nerve and make yourself more resilient to stress:
1. The Simplest Thing: Slow Breathing
Slow down your breathing. Breathe in for a count of 6-8 beats. Then breathe out for 8-10 beats (or 2-3 breaths longer than your in-breath was). Moving your diaphragm is an important part of this. This means expanding your belly outward as you take a breath in. So let go of those tight belly muscles, relax, and let it all hang out as you take that slow breath in. This will also lower your blood pressure and heart rate.
- Relax and lower the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body
- Lower your heart rate
- Lower your blood pressure
2. Singing, Humming, or Simply Using Your Voice
Since “the vagus nerve connects to your vocal cords, making sounds stimulates the nerve and increases our heart-rate variability and vagal tone."2
This is fun to do with kids or your own inner child. If you don’t already have musical instruments, make shakers and drums from stuff in your cupboard. Have a little parade through the house singing and exercising at the same time. Don’t wait until you are all bored with staying indoors and playing with the same old toys. Plan routine breaks during the day where you sing together or simply hum. Perhaps as you clear the breakfast table and again throughout the day. Kids still at the napping age? Sing a few songs together before tucking them in and again before bedtime.
You and your partner can do this too. Maybe take a shower together and “sing in the rain.” If you are on your own for the day or doing a solitary task, hum a bit of your favourite tune or simply be creative with your voice making sounds of any kind. Put on some music, sing, and dance alone or with others.
3. Socializing and Laughing
Are you a Facebook user? Join some groups that focus on sharing humour and funny memes.
Plan some FaceTime or Skype calls with friends who may be isolating. You can do group chats and catch up with each other, sing together, or even read a book or watch a webinar and discuss it together.
4. Cold Exposure
Apparently exposing yourself to cold strengthens the vagus nerve. Researchers have found that "exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic "fight or flight" response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve." 4
"Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic "fight or flight" activity and increases vagal modulation."4
Exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.
"But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects.
Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health."5
Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal activity and vagal tone.
"The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response."6 You may not be going out for massages but massaging your kid’s or partner’s feet, shoulders, or back even while watching TV can bring the much-needed touch we all need to stay healthy.
So there are some other things you can do. And this is not just for now. Adopt these into your daily routine, teach them to your kids and prepare for having a strong and toned vagus nerve to help through life’s inevitable uncertainties.