The Vagus Nerve and Dealing with Stress

What is stress? The dictionary describes it as pressure or tension exerted on a material object, or a state

or emotional or mental strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

Medically, the definition of stress is what occurs when the demands in our lives strain our ability to

adapt. It causes both psychological and biological changes that can increase risk for illness. According to

the CDC, stress accounts for 70% of all doctor visits.

Keep in mind that stress isn’t always bad. We need to stress our hearts, lungs, and muscles through

activity and exercise in order to gain strength and endurance. That kind of positive stress is called

“eustress.” Distress is the stress that depletes us.

What does your doctor prescribe for stress? Many prescribe pharmaceuticals, but there are many more

ways to manage stress that do not require medication.

Most of the neurochemistry of stress that is publicized in the media has to do with cortisol. Cortisol is a

hormone makes us stressed, but what makes us calm?

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. That means it comes out of your brainstem. It exits the skull

through the jugular foramen, which is an opening between the temporal and occipital bones. The vagus

nerve uses acetylcholine which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It regulates heart rate, perspiration,

intestinal motility, mucosal integrity of the gut, and gastric acid production. It exits the base of your skull

through your jugular foramen. It transmits primarily parasympathetic input, which means it keeps things

calm. Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter of the vagus nerve. It can cause excitation in skeletal muscle

(think muscle tightness) but it lowers heart rate and inflammation.

Your glossopharyngeal nerve and spinal accessory nerve also exit through the jugular foramen. The

glossopharyngeal nerve goes to swallowing muscles, and the parotid gland (which makes saliva),

provides sensory information about taste, swallowing, and sinuses, and your eardrums. The spinal

accessory nerve goes to your trapezius muscle and your sternocleidomastoid (those muscles on the tops

of your shoulders and in your neck that get tight when you are stressed!) Your internal jugular vein

Why all this talk about the jugular foramen? Your cranial bones are not truly fused. They move and

function like a type of joint. Thus, it is possible to have mechanical compression at this area. Most of

what the brain does is called “descending inhibition.” Descending inhibition describes the signals that

come down from the brain and keep things calm. For example, when someone has a stroke or a brain

injury, they lose descending inhibition and get increased muscle tone causing their arms and legs to be

very tight and difficult to move.

Here is a list of symptoms- what do they sound like?

  •  Lump in your throat
  •  Excessive perspiration
  •  Neck pain
  •  Sleep disturbances
  •  Cold hands/feet
  •  Irregular or accelerated heart rate
  •  Chronic constipation or diarrhea

Does that sound like stress? Yes, it does.

Here is a list of the symptoms of vagus nerve compression:

  •  Lump in your throat
  •  Excessive perspiration
  •  Neck pain
  •  Sleep disturbances
  •  Cold hands/feet
  •  Irregular or accelerated heart rate
  •  Chronic constipation or diarrhea

It is also involved in stress responses that result in passing out and peeing your pants.

I am not aware of any literature on the topic, but I welcome anyone to use me to collect data, and I am

happy to teach others how to do this. When they vagus nerve gets compressed at the jugular foramen,

muscle tone increases and stress symptoms increase. You may not be able to fully therapy or exercise

yourself out of a compressed vagus nerve. Getting the mechanical compression off is transformative for

most people. Neurosurgeons are even implanting vagus nerve stimulators for severe problems. What if

the problem could be solved with a few gentle manual techniques?

What can you do to optimize your vagus nerve?

1. See a practitioner that knows how to decompress it- Cranial or CranioSacral techniques can be very

useful lessening the pressure and abnormal firing of this nerve.

2. Get your breath out of your shoulders and into your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing reduces vagal

tone. Here is a video to guide you.

3. Pulling sideways on the tragus of your ears decompresses the vagus nerve- 1 lb or force for 1 minute.

BE VERY GENTLE. You are unlikely to be able to generate a lot of force this way. Here is a video to guide


4. Exercise- exercise stimulates good vagal tone. You don’t have to exercise intensely to get the benefits,

and if you have a chronic illness or injury, it may be best if you do not exercise intensely. Here are

instructions on how to dose exercise appropriately, for most people.

5. Dose stress appropriately- find things that are challenging but still within your skill level. When you

are out of your skill level, the stress is too high. Too low, and there isn’t enough stress to grow. Plan as

much as you can. Set manageable goals. If you don’t meet them, then you just have to re-organize and

figure out how you can meet them. Know where you end and others begin. You can’t control the

behaviors of others, but you can control your response. Have a counselor or life coach in your routine to

help be a sounding board and help your process your own issues. Have more than one, as they have

many specializations, whether it be helping you with organizational skills, mind-body skills, or

interpreting your life via your dreams or astrological birth chart.

6. Be optimistic. Being optimistic strengthens positive neural pathways that mediate stress responses.

Make a list of 10 positive things every day! There is nothing magical about the number 10. You could

even just write one down, or make a mental note of it. However, can you really overdose on optimism?

7. Make friends- having good social connections improves vagus nerve tone. Check out my story for how

I found my way to meaningful connections.

Lastly, I want to quote Christopher Bergland from one of his articles in Psychology Today: “Equanimity( is

a core tenet of many ancient philosophies and religions. Equanimity is defined as ‘Mental calmness,

composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.’ Equanimity has its biological roots

in the vagus nerve and is synonymous with grace under pressure. Equanimity is not synonymous with

passivity. As you strive to push yourself ever higher—and take on bigger challenges—do so with what I

call ‘Ferocious Equanimity.’ Use your vagus nerve to stay balanced and calm when the stakes are high.

As you push against your limits remember that your vagus nerve is always there to keep you

imperturbable and steady on the high-wire act of living your life to its fullest and maximizing your


Your vagus nerve is always there for you!