How The Vagus Nerve Can Improve Your Life for the Better

An article by Marti Glenn Ph.D. explains how to achieve maximum personal benefit by understanding your Vagus Nerve (Polyvagal Theory).

The stressful times we are living in call for different solutions. The latest science, especially Polyvagal Theory (a part of Somatic Therapy), clearly suggests that we need to change from the inside out. And the Vagus Nerve is a key component of any efforts we make for personal change.

Strengthen Your Vagus Nerve

Do you ever wonder why some people are able to go with the flow and stay cool and calm most of the time?

Would you like to feel less stressed and have more satisfying relationships?

Keep Reading for the Simple Secrets of the Vagus Nerve That Will Help You Do Just That!

This “newer” science (Polyvagal Theory) demonstrates that transformation begins with “being,” with building our internal strengths. It includes the heart and the head – the brain and the whole body (Somatic Therapy) – and gives us the capacity to stay cool, calm, and connected.

The Revolutionary Science of the Vagus Nerve

New research is emerging that changes how we look at our capacity to handle stress and anxiety as well as our ability to communicate and create satisfying relationships. This revolutionary research demands that we examine our assumptions regarding physical health, relationships, emotional well-being, and our capacity for resiliency. This includes:

  • How we think
  • How we make decisions
  • Our levels of anxiety in the face of change and/or turmoil
  • How we create and sustain our meaningful relationships

This groundbreaking science demonstrates that it is possible at any stage of life to change the brain, grow the nervous system and create a new “operating system” or program to transform our lives.

Professionals in many disciplines, including leadership, psychology, neuroscience, and medicine, are buzzing about this. The emerging applications of this science are giving us new ways to profoundly change our lives from the inside out. They include specific practices that help us grow the nervous system and shift mental and physical concerns you may have experienced for decades.

The processes are quite simple. You can use these tools and techniques right where you are, right now. But first, a little background so you can understand why these tools are important and how they can help you live the life you long for.

The Vagus Nerve Helps You Go With The Flow

Polyvagal Theory and the Vagus Nerve

One of the foundational pillars of this new science is Polyvagal Theory, which involves the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve (our tenth cranial nerve) is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, that helps us to “rest and digest.” It is also called the “tend and befriend” response. It is responsible for many of our physiological functions including our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and our capacity to speak. This helps us maintain homeostasis.

Basically, the vagus nerve is the CEO of your body’s organization, and we want to be sure your CEO is performing optimally. Being a vital part of our optimal functioning makes having a healthy vagus nerve an important facet of our overall health and wellbeing.

This fascinating theory paints a new picture of what we need now to handle our fast-paced and ever-changing world. How we handle stress, how reactive or calm we can be is dependent on how well developed our nervous system is. Polyvagal theory tells us exactly what it takes to become truly healthy, loving, and resilient.

Dr. Steven Porges discovered that, as humans, we have three, not two branches of the nervous system. We were taught that we have two: fight/flight and freeze. He discovered that we humans have a third branch, a third way to stay safe, get our needs met, and calm our nervous system. He calls it our social engagement system: our connection with other human beings.

The Social Engagement System

Dr. Porges’ research demonstrates that this third and most important branch is our first go-to strategy. It takes less energy and works quickly to help us be and do what is needed in the moment to stay safe, connected and healthy. We know now that how your vagus nerve develops as a small child determines a lot more than we thought.

Let’s explore that for a moment: Our social engagement system that stems from the vagus nerve begins developing in-utero and becomes myelinated (meaning it thickens and creates more connections) with our first contacts after birth.

We’re the only mammals who, at birth, can’t crawl to our source of food and safety, so we must signal our caregiver. If our caregiver is emotionally present and responsive, these tiny nerves in the inner ear become myelinated which allows the baby to recognize a calming human voice.

This continues as eye contact is made, the heart settles and makes digestion possible. The child begins to develop a healthy vagus nerve which is the foundation for our social engagement system.

First, our body uses an unconscious mechanism Dr. Porges calls neuroception to discern threat or safety. It’s like an unconscious part of us is always asking, “Am I safe? Am I safe?” If our unconscious bodily sense detects safety, we’re able to connect with others to soothe our nervous system, digest our food and begin to trust that our needs will be met. In other words, our unconscious system of neuroception is always surveying the environment, “Am I safe?  Can I bring all of me here? Can I ask for what I want?”

This is important: If your vagus nerve is not well developed, your social engagement system won’t function optimally. If there’s not a perceived sense of emotional and physical safety, we use the extremely stressful backup systems of fight/ flight or freeze.

This is where we leave what we call our Window of Presence. This often looks like big frustration, anger, sarcasm, and/or withholding. It can also manifest as being withdrawn, shut down, and/or feeling/being invisible.

What Was Your Childhood Like?

If you, like me, didn’t have the experience of safe, stable, nurturing caregivers you may not have been able to completely develop your vagus nerve. (By the way, if your parents didn’t have that experience themselves, they couldn’t give it to you!)

When parents can’t provide safe, stable, nurturing relationships, we often experience anxiety, digestive problems, an inability to accurately read social cues, and either missing cues of others or misinterpreting their cues.

As you review this information about the Vagus Nerve and Polyvagal Theory, I encourage you to think about your own life and make a few notes. Allow yourself to become curious about your early experiences and how they might be impacting you now, both physically and emotionally.

Science is telling us now that as we perceive a safe environment, in the presence of someone who cares, we can have experiences that develop the vagus nerve. Let me repeat that:

As we sense that we’re in an emotionally safe environment, with someone we trust,
we can have experiences that develop the vagus nerve.

This helps us calm the nervous system and experience ourselves and the world in healthier ways. Many of the processes we do at Ryzio are designed to help you grow your vagus nerve!

As we explore this, you may recall some of your earliest experiences. I think about the fact that my mother was incredibly anxious and stressed. My parents had a volatile relationship and separated when my brother was an infant. They really loved each other; they just couldn’t make the marriage work.

On Christmas day they got back together for the afternoon and later found out I was on the way. Shortly before this, my mother’s sister and her baby died in childbirth. You can imagine, that my mother was filled with turmoil, anxiety, and a lot of grief. In some work I had done, I experienced her anxiety and unconsciously thought I needed to take care of her. Since that wasn’t possible, I unconsciously decided I must not be smart and dedicated myself to doing my best to take care of others, often at my own expense.

It’s Never Too Late to Change Your Childhood

Even if your parents weren’t able to be calm and emotionally present for you growing up, we know that now, in an environment where you feel safe, with people who are genuinely present and caring, you can repair your Vagus Nerve and strengthen your nervous system.

My most memorable experience of this was in the early 1990’s when I was working with a therapist in a group intensive. Ray was incredibly present, as was the entire group, and I found myself quietly moving into a deep inner state. In that sweet stillness, my eyes closed, I took a deep breath and felt something shift inside my body. I paused and heard these words inside my head: “It doesn’t matter if they didn’t want me, I wanted to be here!” I remember looking into Ray’s eyes, feeling his calm, nurturing presence. Just then I felt a powerful surge of aliveness in my body. I smiled and said: “I wanted to be here!”

This was life-changing for me. In this process I experienced each of the three things scientists tell us we need to shift what we call our Program, our unconscious beliefs, and step into the fullness of the True Self:

  1. A felt sense of safety
  2. An experience of who I truly am
  3. And, having this experience witnessed by a deeply present and caring group around me.

The Healing Process using the Vagus Nerve

The healing part of that experience is not about “reliving a personal trauma” or an earlier challenging experience. It’s never about reexperiencing what actually happened, but rather using tools to experience a genuine sense of safety.

Knowing our early experiences is interesting and can help us create a coherent story of our lives, making sense of what happened, but the thing that creates lasting change is the experience of feeling safe, an experience of myself as different from what I may have unconsciously believed and having that witnessed by someone I trust. Someone who cares.

Dr. Porges calls this way of getting our needs met, our social engagement system. This determines our capacity for personal connection and our capacity for love. With the principles and processes we use in our Ryzio training and programs, participants often notice themselves becoming calmer and more present immediately.

The more experiences of safety we can have and acknowledge, the more our social engagement system – and the vagus nerve – grows. A healthy social engagement system helps us combat depression, stress, and trauma.

Everyone’s vagus nerve is different. We each have different capacities, depending on our earliest experiences and our experiences of safety and loving relationships as an adult. If you have a healthy, well-developed vagus nerve, you’ll be able to recover quickly and relax more deeply following stressful or frightening episodes.

In fact, if you have a healthy vagus nerve or nervous system, your body won’t be on alert as much, meaning you don’t have to expend a lot of energy unconsciously surveying the environment for threat or safety. You’ll be able to relax faster, take things in stride more easily and go with the flow, making healthier choices.

The Good News: You Can Develop a Healthy Nervous System, Grow Your Vagus Nerve Now!

You can help your nervous system create new connections and function optimally at any time in life. Below is a list of resources to help you increase the health of your nervous system. As you practice some of these, you’ll begin to experience remarkable physical, mental and emotional changes that will increase your sense of calm, your capacity to have meaningful relationships, and experience more love as well as increase your resilience.

When the vagus nerve is well developed and healthy, our overall health and stamina improve. We’re able to be more present, clear-headed, and creative. When we live and work from a place of balance, we can weather the storms and help those around us to do the same.

In short, consciously developing your vagus nerve (Polyvagal Theory) will increase your overall ability to live a longer, healthier, and more meaningful life.

How to Grow Your Vagus Nerve and Stay Cool, Calm, and Connected

Below are some practices that have been proven to help you grow your vagus nerve. I suggest that you try as many of them as you can. See what helps you feel more calm, present, and centered. Choose several that you will do daily. Make some notes about the ones you’ll try first.

  1. Vagal Nurturing. This Ryzio practice takes about two minutes and will immediately help you calm your nervous system. Each of the simple components comes directly from research that has been proven to activate, nurture and help you grow your vagus nerve. See
  2. Breathe Deeply and Slowly. Taking slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breaths stimulates and tones the vagus nerve. It’s best if you can make the exhale longer than the inhale.
  3. Nurturing Social Contacts. Schedule regular activities with people you care about. Play, laugh, spend time in nature, and have fun. This not only stimulates the vagus nerve but is critical for health and well-being.
  4. Humming, Singing, Chanting. The vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, so humming and singing stimulate it. Hum a song, repeat the sound ‘OM’, sing softly or loudly, fast or slow. Sing alone or with others. What it sounds like does not matter. It matters that you sing!
  5. Cold. You can begin by splashing your face with cold water. You might also bathe or swim in cold water, and drink cold water.
  6. Mindfulness and Meditation Practices. (Especially the loving-kindness meditation… See This promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others. Studies show that increasing positive emotions can lead to increased social connection and feelings of closeness and enhanced vagal tone.
  7.  Prayer. Reciting prayers, such as the rosary, or other mantras, have been shown to increase vagus activation and tone.
  8.  Yoga, Tai-Chi and Qigong.  Research has shown that practicing yoga, tai-chi, and/or Qigong increases vagal nerve activity, helps increase vagal tone, as well as calms and strengthens the nervous system.
  9.  Exercise. Exercise stimulates blood flow to the internal organs and therefore, the vagus nerve. Be sure your practice is one that is nurturing and enjoyable.
  10. Laughter. Laughter really is the best medicine! Laughing with friends is even better.
  11. Massage. Pressure massage, foot massage and general body massage all help increase relaxation and well-being as well as increase vagal tone.
  12. Balance the Gut Microbiome. The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut increases vagal tone as it creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve. This can be accomplished by improving diet and consuming probiotics as directed.
  13. Touch. Increasing the hormone oxytocin through touch, positive close relationships, and healthy sexual activity also helps increase vagal tone.
  14. Eye contact. Practice safe and appropriate eye contact whenever you can. This helps calm the nervous system and create positive responses with others, whether with strangers or close connections.

The research on the Vagus Nerve (Polyvagal Theory) and Neuroscience are telling us we can change the brain, grow our nervous system and increase our capacity to:

  • Be more conscious and aware
  • Stay cool and calm 
  • Connect with others in more satisfying and meaningful ways
  • Experience more compassion
  • Feel loved and cared for 
  • Be more creative 
  • Have greater focus and concentration, increased creativity
  • Experience increased overall health

Growing the nervous system and increasing our capacity for meaningful connections with others is a powerful foundation for our personal health, for all our relationships, and for making a real difference in our current world. Each of us is being called to bring our gifts and join with like-minded others to create the world that is needed now.

Related articles:

  1. 9 Quick Steps to Greater Happiness
  2. Let Nothing Keep You From Your Happiness

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