Can Vagus Nerve Stimulation Reduce Your Stress Levels?

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
Two people stand on a dock after a cold plunge in a lake.
© Diego Martin / Stocksy United

If a quick fix for stress and anxiety existed, it would be the golden ticket of mental health. Who doesn't want to find a painless way to feel better that doesn’t involve the time commitment required of therapy or trying different prescription medications?  

Enter the vagus nerve, which, when activated, can do everything from easing treatment-resistant depression to reducing inflammation to increasing your immune system’s response — or so people claim.  

What is the vagus nerve and why is it important?  

The vagus nerve is your body’s longest cranial nerve, stretching from your brain down into your digestive system, with branches reaching each side of your body as well as connecting with your heart and lungs.  

It is part of your autonomic nervous system, aka the part of your nervous system that controls automatic functions like heartbeat and breathing. The autonomic nervous system is further divided into two parts: the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” part that activates when you’re calm and the sympathetic or “fight or flight” response that activates when you’re alert or alarmed.  

Your vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic, or calming, nervous system. When the vagus nerve activates, it slows your heart rate, promotes digestion and helps regulate your immune response. It also plays a role in your blood pressure, mood and speech.  

“The activity of the vagus nerve is called vagal tone, and the strength of the vagal tone is correlated with the ability to respond to stress,” says Dr. Stephanie Wang, a naturopathic physician and acupuncturist at the UW Osher Center for Integrative Health. “With a better vagal tone, an individual can better return to the parasympathetic state after encountering stressors.”

So, is it possible to strengthen your vagal tone? And, if so, can it help you de-stress?  

“There is a scarcity of clear research on how to influence the vagus nerve, but there is a lot of interest in it, and we can engage in simple practices that, at the very least, can help calm our nervous systems in the face of so much stimulation,” says Dr. Amelia Dubovsky, a UW Medicine psychiatrist.  

Why is it important to have ways to cope with stress? 

Calming your fight or flight response isn’t just attractive in the short term to deal with acute stress — it also helps ward off chronic stress that accumulates over time. You can think of chronic stress as any kind of stressor that doesn’t resolve.

So many things in modern life contribute to chronic stress: living in a loud or chaotic environment, lack of sleep, not eating nutritious food, lack of exercise, income inequalities, dealing with discrimination, untreated mental health issues, social media and constantly negative news cycles.  

“The chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in increased cortisol release, which in turn is correlated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and decreased immune function,” Dubovsky says.  

It can also lead to chronic inflammation in the body. In specific instances, inflammation is actually a good thing — it helps your body recover from infections, for example. But chronic inflammation can lead to lasting medical problems.  

“The vagus nerve modulates inflammation by releasing a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which acts as a messenger to dampen the inflammatory response,” Wang explains. “Essentially, the vagus nerve tells the immune system to calm down.” 

Techniques to encourage relaxation 

Research has shown certain relaxation techniques appear to activate the vagus nerve and can help reduce inflammation in chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, Wang says.

Medical devices designed to stimulate the vagus nerve have been used to treat conditions like epilepsy and severe treatment-resistant depression. These devices are surgically implanted and trigger the vagus nerve with electrical pulses.  

Newer, noninvasive devices exist to help treat migraines and cluster headaches, too.  

Aside from these devices, nothing else is proven to stimulate your vagus nerve to treat stress or anxiety — but — more research still needs to be done. In the meantime, here are some techniques you can try that might stimulate your vagus nerve — and if not, can still help relieve your stress.  

Deep breathing: When you’re stressed or anxious, you probably notice that your heart and breathing rates increase. Deliberately breathing more deeply and slowly can help calm those reflexes down.  

“A simple exercise to activate this state includes ‘four, seven, eight’ breathing in which a person inhales for four counts, holds their breath for seven counts, then exhales for eight counts,” Dubovsky says. “It is thought that long exhales, in particular, can slow our heart rates.” 

Acupuncture: Inserting very fine needles into specific points of the body can help reduce pain and inflammation; make sure it’s done by a licensed acupuncturist. 

 “Some of these effects are thought to be mediated by the brain-gut connection via the vagus nerve,” Wang says.   

Cold plunge: Whether you’re dunking your entire body in cold water or just pressing a cold pack to your forehead or neck, putting something cold on your skin may help calm you down.  

“There have been no studies that have proven that cold plunge therapy alone is a treatment for anxiety or depression, although it has been found that putting one's face in cold water does activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” Dubovsky says.  

If you’re actively panicking and have a fast heart rate, pressing a cold pack to your face and holding your breath for 30 seconds can help your heart rate return to normal.  

Mindfulness, meditation and yoga: All of these things can help you focus on the present moment rather than past upsets or future worries. Doing a single session can be helpful, but the real benefit is in keeping a consistent practice and retraining your body on how to respond to stress.  

Reflexology: This is a technique that involves a therapist putting pressure on specific points on your feet, kind of like foot-focused acupressure. Research has shown it can help reduce stress, Wang says, though how exactly is still unknown and more research is needed. Still, for most people it’s an option that is relatively risk-free. 

Singing and humming: There’s still more research that needs to be done on this, Wang says, but small studies suggest that singing or humming to yourself can aid in relaxation, possibly by stimulating your vagus nerve where it connects with your vocal chords. Humming might also slow your breathing down a bit, which will naturally help you feel calmer.  

Connecting with others, spending time outside in nature, adding regular exercise or movement to your days and eating nutritious food that makes you feel good are also helpful actions to take.  

Why you should look beyond hacks 

Ultimately, Wang encourages people to look beyond short-term hacks and quick fixes and find healthy behavioral habits for long-term relief from stress and anxiety while addressing their root causes. This can be difficult, not just emotionally but in terms of the time and effort it takes, not to mention the barriers people may face in accessing care. But putting in more time and effort to manage your stress will help you find lasting solutions. 

“To adjust our body to the parasympathetic rest and digest state requires long-term practices,” says Wang. “People should think of it like physical therapy for your nervous system. You need regular practice.”