Reset Your Vagus Nerve to Stop Stress In its Tracks

Article by Lucas Rockwood

Do you suffer from stress and anxiety? Can one negative event sometimes spin you out for the whole day? Maybe someone cuts you up in traffic, you get a negative comment on a social media post, or someone from your past sends you a text message and suddenly you’re ruminating and worrying, and you just can’t snap out of it? If this sounds familiar, you might be suffering from what’s referred to as low vagal tone and resetting your vagus nerve could help.

In this article we’ll talk about vagal tone and some vagus nerve reset exercises that you can use at home to help you find more emotional balance.

Anatomy of your nerveous system

Your autonomic nervous system has two main branches – your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight), and parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Your vagus nerve – your body’s 10th cranial nerve, which travels from your brain throughout your thoracic cavity – is largely responsible for your parasympathetic nervous system response.

Anxious people often struggle to activate their parasympathetic nervous system response in difficult situations. This is known as having low vagal tone. Someone with high vagal tone also feels the initial stress, but they are able to self-soothe and get on with their day, unlike someone with low vagal tone who may ruminate over a difficult event or situation for much longer. We can’t bulletproof ourselves against negative stimuli, but we can balance our nervous systems so that we respond rather than react when faced with them.

Good sleep, health, and exercise are all beneficial for promoting high vagal tone, but there are also some medically backed tricks that can be really effective for resetting yours in the short term.

Common signs of low vagal tone include:

1) Feeling anxious and stressed
2) Feeling overwhelmed with worry
3) Feeling wired but tired

3 Exercises to Reset Your Vagus Nerve

Here’s are three simple techniques that will reset your vagus nerve and encourage a parasympathetic nervous system response when you’re faced with anxious or stressful stimuli.

Download PDF pose chart

1) Cold Therapy

Putting cold water on your face, cheeks, and particularly your neck triggers your body’s mammalian dive reflex, reducing your heart rate, increasing your heart rate variability, and resetting your vagus nerve. An ice pack is more effective than water and placing it on your neck delivers the best results.

  • Press an ice pack to the side of your neck for 15 seconds
  • Switch sides and repeat at least twice on either side
  • Practice this anytime you need to self-soothe, many students find this to be an effective pre-bed ritual

2) Modified Valsalva Maneuver

It’s helpful to think of this practice as a forced reboot of your nervous system. It’s often used in emergency medicine to treat patients with tachycardia. It initially increases your intrathoracic and intra-abdominal pressure, then reduces is, and the shift in pressure affects your cardiac output—and this chain of events stimulates your vagus nerve.

  • Inhale deeply, close your mouth and nose, bear down in a faux exhale as you press outward for 15 seconds
  • After 15 seconds, breathe through your nose, elevate your legs to 45 degrees and relax
  • Repeat this exercise up to four times

3) Balloon Breathing

A simple, gentler version of the Modified Valsalva Maneuver, this can be done more discreetly—and is even one that kids will enjoy. By filling the balloon and holding the pressure, you increase your abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure as well, again creating a reset effect.

  • Blow to inflate a balloon and hold for 15 seconds
  • Release and pause for 30 seconds
  • Repeat up to four times – 15 seconds on, 30 seconds off
  • If you feel dizzy at all, take a break

Safety Disclaimer

Some of these exercises deliberately change your blood pressure. So, if you have hypertension, heart disease, or glaucoma, please check with your doctor first. Please do not use this video to diagnose or treat an illness or injury. Always check with a trusted healthcare provider before starting any self-care routine.

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