Forget mindfulness. Forget daily yoga. There’s a clever new stress-busting tool about to hit the market which may be the simplest way of reducing long-term stress and anxiety, and it’s all about focusing on your vagus nerve. Starting in the brain stem, the vagus nerve passes through the throat, to the heart, lungs and diaphragm, before spreading into the gut with root-like diversity.
The vagus nerve is pretty vital as it monitors our response to our senses, which makes it surprising that it has had so little attention paid to it – until now. As our stress superhighway, it oversees the fight or flight mechanism, and in this age of constant communication and fast-paced living, modern stress levels mean that for many, the vagus is overworked.
Research shows that deliberately stimulating the vagus nerve using low frequency soundwaves puts the brakes on the stress response, which in turn helps to control stress levels. Vagus nerve stimulation techniques effectively decrease the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and breathing rates and help digestion, dialling down stress levels to enable the body to recover.
Vagal toning has been widely used in Scandinavia where it is referred to as vibracoustic therapy, and where it is acknowledged that it has helped speed up recovery rates from chronic anxiety and stress-related illnesses. It also helps with migraine. The US military used vagal toning on soldiers returning from Iraq suffering from PTSD and reported a 97 percent reduction in anxiety rates.
Enter the Sensate. A pebble-shaped device designed to stimulate the vagus nerve using low-frequency sound waves which can be adjusted in intensity via your smartphone. It needs to be placed on the breastbone where the nerve is closest to the surface, and can be worn next to the skin or over your clothes. Trials show it successfully helps to reduce stress levels, and just ten minutes use per day can make a phenomenal difference to overriding stress levels.
The Sensate will have different programmes depending on whether you need pure stress relief, help to focus, or help to sleep. For those who find meditation apps less than relaxing this is likely to be a real winner. It’s not cheap, currently priced at £199.99, but given stress causes premature ageing alongside a myriad of other health issues we suspect many will sign up straight away.
The Sensate may be the fast track to a stress-free state, but there are other vagus toning techniques to try:
As you breathe in through your nose push out your tummy (there’s a tendency to hold it in). Count for five and then exhale quickly through the mouth. Slow, abdominal deep breathing kick starts the vagus nerve and noticeably helps to relieve stress and insomnia.
Singing vibrates the vocal chords which in turn stimulates the vagus. Not for you? Then chanting may be more appealing. A low, guttural ‘omm’ will vibrate the back of the throat where the vagus nerve begins. Similarly, gargling for just a minute will have much the same effect.