If There Was Ever a Time to Activate Your Vagus Nerve, It Is Now

Four simple steps to return to a ‘rest and digest’ state

Ashley Abramson
Elemental
Published in
6 min readApr 10, 2020

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Image: Sciepro/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

IfIf you experience a racing heartbeat or tightness in your chest when you read a news story about the pandemic, it’s because of your sympathetic nervous system. When the brain senses a threat, it triggers the fight-or-flight response.

On the flip side, your parasympathetic nervous system plays a role in calming your body. For example, escaping from a grizzly bear and returning to your safe, cozy cave signals to the brain that the threat is gone, so the stress responds ends. Now that you’ve resolved the threat, you can return to a state of peace.

But what happens when a stressor doesn’t have a definitive ending — like, say, a pandemic that might go on for months? You could suffer some significant health consequences — unless you intervene, with the help of your nervous system.

Emerging research on the vagus nerve, a major nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, sheds light on how people can tune in to their nervous systems and find ways back to a “rest and digest” state amidst the chronic stress.

InIn his “polyvagal theory,” professor of psychiatry Stephen Porges hypothesizes that the parasympathetic nervous system has two parts that cause…

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Ashley Abramson
Elemental

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.