We all know that meditation relieves stress. But specifically targeting the vagus nerve through meditation helps regulate our impulsive stressful actions. Read on to know more about how meditation can help voluntarily influence the vagus nerve, which in turn signals our nervous system to regulate our mood.
The vagus nerve and meditation are interrelated. The vagus nerve, roughly translated, means “the wandering nerve.” It travels from the brain stem down to the abdomen and connects with many major organs participating in our bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, heart rate, etc. It is intimately connected to the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore plays a big role in regulating stress.
The autonomic nervous system runs our bodies automatically without us having to participate. The functions of the system include the heart rate. The system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is responsible for putting us in a fight or flight mode, and the parasympathetic branch is responsible for taking us out of the fight or flight mode and regulating our bodies when not involved in such a situation.
Nowadays, stress levels are at historic highs and one of the reasons for this is the phenomena of getting stuck in fight or flight.
For a number of reasons, our nervous systems get stuck in the sympathetic mode, meaning that the changes that take place in our body/mind during a fight or flight are not resolved even after the situation. Consequently, those changes, to varying degrees, stay with us for extended periods of time. This results in chronic stress, which leads to a host of physical, mental, and emotional issues.
The Vagus Nerve And Stress
Science has given us a number of tools whereby we can measure various bodily functions to determine stress levels. One of the most effective ways to measure these stress levels is by studying the vagus nerve stimulation. When the vagus nerve gets stimulated, it influences the parasympathetic nervous system to come out of fight or flight, thereby reducing stress. Here’s how this happens through meditation.
How Meditation Helps
We know that meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is effective in lowering stress. Mindfulness meditation, which is all about paying complete attention to the present moment, is the most studied approach to meditation. It has over 2500 studies published worldwide with an average of 200 more per month being published. I consider it to be the hub of the meditation wheel in that it enhances all the other meditation approaches and can be a stand-alone practice as well. These studies show that meditation can increase energy, reduce stress, slow breathing, decrease anxiety, reduce pain, increase blood flow, and provide a sense of peace to name a few of the benefits.
When the vagus nerve receives the signals as a result of these meditation practices, it sends a message to the brain that all is well, there is no danger, and there is no need to be in fight or flight. The brain then sends the message to the autonomic nervous system, which stimulates the parasympathetic branch to come out of fight or flight and regulate the systems into balance. This is an example of the vagus nerve and the brain working together. Messages go from the brain to the body and the body to the brain through the vagus nerve.
It is interesting to note that a function of the body previously thought to run automatically can in fact be influenced consciously through meditation. This gives us insight into the possibility of many ways with which we can consciously contribute to our health and well being. This is yet another demonstration of the mind/body connection and how our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations are interconnected and how meditation can assist in the smooth running of the system.