Stimulate the vagus nerve & reduce stress with simple exercises

Im Schneidersitz sitzt eine Frau am Boden inmitten einem Raum voller Pflanzen und entspannt sich.

When we experience stress, conflict or anxiety, our nervous system switches to alert mode. And then, once the real or perceived danger has been avoided, the system switches to rest mode. However, if the body continues to feel pressure, a little active help is needed – like stimulating the vagus nerve, for example.

Vagus nerve stimulation – a legacy from prehistoric times

Are you late for an important appointment? Are your boss or children getting on your nerves? This is when your body switches to a state of stress – quite automatically, as if you were in danger of being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger in prehistoric times. Once the danger has been avoided, the appointment is over and the children and boss have stopped annoying you, the vagus nerve becomes active and returns the body to a state of relaxation.

Stimulation of the vagus nerve to avoid permanent stress

However, things become problematic when stress becomes a permanent condition. When it comes to this, specifically stimulating the vagus nerve can help – through meditation or breathing exercises, for example. Even humming, gargling or eye yoga are said to activate the vagus nerve. Why does this work? Because the vagus nerve plays such an important role in our nervous system.

Our “rest mode nerve”: function of the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve not only plays a central role in switching the body from a state of tension to relaxation, but also in digestion. It’s the largest nerve in the parasympathetic system. The vagus nerve “originates” where the brain stem and spinal cord meet and runs downwards with branches extending to the ears and larynx.

Vagus nerve connects the brain with the gut and other organs

In the chest area, it’s connected to the heart and lungs, then passes through the oesophagus to the abdominal cavity. Here the vagus nerve branches out in the form of many fine connections to the organs in the abdominal cavity – kidneys, spleen, stomach, liver – and ends in the small intestine. Around 20% of the fibres of the vagus nerve run from the brain to the body. The remaining 80% run up to the brain. Like on a data highway, the decision-making centre is constantly supplied with information from the organs and responds with signals such as “increase the amount of stomach acid”.

The gut-brain axis

Phrases such as “it turns my stomach” or “it’s gut-wrenching" are no coincidence. Our body reacts to negative feelings by releasing stress hormones, which find their way into the gastrointestinal tract, causing the intestinal muscle to contract strongly. This contraction can go as far as a muscle spasm. This is information that the vagus nerve immediately transmits to the brain, which then causes even more stress if it occurs frequently.

The vagus nerve as part of the nervous system

The vagus nerve is part of our autonomic nervous system. As the name suggests, it works “independently”, like a kind of autopilot running in our body that we don’t consciously control. This applies to functions such as heartbeat, digestion, sweating, goose bumps or sexual function. Although we don’t give direct commands like: “My heart should beat more slowly now”, we can influence our heartbeat indirectly, for example by breathing calmly.

Sympathetic nervous system: takes over during agitation or stress

Our autonomic nervous system is made up of two counterparts that complement each other: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. If we find ourselves in a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system automatically takes control. Heart rate and blood pressure rise, muscles become tense, our sweat glands are activated and digestion is slowed down. All our systems are geared towards a fight or flight response.

Parasympathetic nervous system: takes over when we’re relaxed

As soon as the perceived (or real) threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes charge. Our heartbeat calms down, our breathing slows down, the muscles relax and the digestive process restarts. Ideally, our body should be able to smoothly switch back and forth between the “agitated” and “relaxed” state.

Stimulating the vagus nerve: when does it help?

Sensory overload, pressure to perform, conflicts and fears all constitute today's “dangers” for our body and can cause the sympathetic nervous system to become overactive. As a result, our body gets stuck in an endless loop of threats and is no longer able to return to “rest mode”. Signs of this may include:

  • Not being able to switch off and thoughts continuing to circle even during rest breaks.
  • Tense muscles, typically in the shoulder/neck area, but also in the jaw or face.
  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and less ability to concentrate than usual.
  • Restless eyelids and eyeballs, dry eyes and viscous saliva.
  • Digestive problems – from loss of appetite and ravenous hunger to flatulence, constipation, diarrhoea and stomach cramps.
  • A weakened immune system and tendency towards inflammation.
  • Possibly a tendency to speak quickly and shrilly; generally antisocial behaviour; difficulty maintaining long eye contact.

Vagotonia: when the vagus nerve is overactive

However, it can also happen the other way round, namely that the parasympathetic system is over-dominant and our body can no longer “rev up”. In this case, blood pressure can be low, the pulse is slow, hands and feet are cold and we feel listless.

Exercises to stimulate the vagus nerve

It could be argued that every type of relaxation exercise has some kind of effect on the vagus nerve. Nevertheless, there are points on the body that have a special “connection” to the vagus nerve and can specifically activate it. Below you’ll find an overview of common forms of exercise, most of which can be practised relatively easily at home.

Tip: before starting, try to create a calm, relaxing environment and perform the exercises with gentle movements and a moderate rhythm.


We normally take 12-14 breaths per minute. In stressful situations, we take more, breathing more through the mouth and into the chest. In order to stimulate the vagus nerve or the parasympathetic nervous system, breathing exercises focus on breathing slowly through the nose and into the abdomen.

  • Inhalation is shorter than exhalation. One possible rhythm is: inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds.
  • Or 4-7-8 breathing: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.
  • There are several variations. Box breathing, for example. Here, breathing follows the following pattern: inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds again.

Humming, gargling and singing

The vagus nerve is connected to the pharynx, larynx and vocal cords. Humming, gargling and singing can activate the vagus nerve in this area. To do this, stand or sit comfortably with your spine erect. When humming, the idea is to vary different tones or stay with the same tone for several minutes. Another option is Brahmari (bee humming), a yoga practice. This involves humming like a bee as you exhale and covering your ears and eyes with your hands. When gargling with water, gargle for 10-20 seconds several times. The aim of humming and gargling is to generate as many vibrations as possible. It’s similar with singing – the louder, the better it is for stimulating your vagus nerve.

Eye exercises

Not only, but especially for tired, strained eyes due to long periods of screen time, we recommend eyelid pressure and the cinéma interne exercise. To apply eyelid pressure, place both hands on the face over the eyes for about a minute and press lightly on the closed eyelids. To do the cinéma interne exercise, also close your eyes. Then “watch” the shadows and light patterns that appear on the inside of the eyelids. Another simple option is to switch your gaze between near and far. Focus on an object at eye level about 20-30 centimetres away. After one second, switch to an object 2 to 5 metres away and repeat the whole exercise for about 60 seconds.


Meditation combines breathing techniques with mindfulness exercises, with a focus on the breathing described above and on letting go of those ever-circulating thoughts. One form of meditation is the bodyscan where you become consciously aware of each individual body part. Others involve concentrating on a word or a visualisation such as a burning candle. One form of guided meditation, also particularly popular with children, is “imaginary journeys”, whereby a narrator guides listeners through a (fictional) world with detailed descriptions that appeal to the senses.


Acupressure, like acupuncture, comes from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Meridians can be stimulated by pressing or massaging pressure points in the body. One such pressure point, said to stimulate the vagus nerve, is on the ear. In the hollow at the entrance to the ear canal and above the ear canal, press gently with your finger as if you were pushing the skin back and forth. This will activate the vagus nerve. You can also gently move one or two fingers up and down behind the outer ear or push the skin towards the hairline for several seconds and then away again from the hairline.

Neck massage

The vagus nerve runs downwards to the left and right of the neck vertebra. A gentle massage and sensitive stroking with the hands can stimulate the vagus nerve in the neck and also relieve tension in general. Of course, other forms of massage such as foot reflexology also have a pleasurable relaxing effect and can activate the vagus nerve.


Whether it's splashing water on your face in the morning, a cold shower, a cold swim in winter or a session in a cold chamber, cold activates our nervous system. The effect of the alternating temperatures forces the switch between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and ensures that the vagus nerve is also activated.

Other methods for vagus nerve stimulation

Also good for your body and the vagus nerve are:

  • a healthy and balanced diet
  • intermittent fasting
  • endurance sports such as jogging, hiking, cycling
  • EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) / tapping
  • yoga, tai chi, etc.

Clinically tested methods for vagus nerve stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation is also used in conventional medicine. Around 1990, a team of researchers in the USA developed and tested a form of vagus nerve stimulation for the treatment of epilepsy in which the vagus nerve is directly stimulated by electrical impulses.

Electrical stimulation via implant

With this method, a device is implanted under the skin and connected to the vagus nerve via electrodes. The device is activated by a magnetic control unit. Clinical tests showed that this form of vagus nerve stimulation also had an effect on the participants’ mood. Vagus nerve stimulation has been authorised in Switzerland for the treatment of epilepsy since 1994 and for the treatment of severe depression since 2011. In both cases, however, it’s only used if conventional drug therapies don’t achieve the desired effect.

Vagus nerve stimulation on the ear

As an alternative to the invasive method of vagus nerve stimulation mentioned above, transcutaneous stimulation was developed 20 years ago. This method – in which electrodes are placed on the skin – involves stimulating the part of the vagus nerve that runs along the ear and auditory canal. Transcutaneous stimulation has shown great promise in the treatment of epilepsy, depression, migraines and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, but requires further research into its application parameters.


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