Let’s talk about mindfulness and the vagus nerve. In this day and age stress is at an all time high. Chronic stress leads to all kinds of mental, emotional, and even physical problems. But there are simple approaches to alleviate day-to-day stress. I’m sure we have all heard of mindfulness meditation by now and its effects on lowering stress. You may have even heard of the miraculous responses that acupuncture has on stress reduction. Both acupuncture and mindfulness trigger the same mechanism of action, engaging the parasympathetic nervous response via the vagus nerve. The parasympathetic response enables you rest, relax, and de-stress. But what does the Vagus nerve have to do with these things? And what the heck is the vagus nerve anyway?
What’s the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and is dubbed the “wandering nerve”. It travels from the base of the brain up into the ears and down to the intestines. On its way down it connects with many major organs. It helps with regulating heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion, to name a few. It is closely connected to the parasympathetic nervous system that we talked about earlier. Hence it plays a profound role in stress regulation and reduction. Using the tools of acupuncture and mindfulness we are able to directly stimulate the vagus nerve and therefore reduce stress.
How does acupuncture do this? Studies have shown that acupuncture achieves this feat by inserting hair-thin needles into certain points in the ear. This is where the Vagus nerve emerges from its deep internal pathway to the surface, the ear. These acupuncture points in the ear are used for stress reduction, addiction withdrawal, and pain. There are many other areas of the body where acupuncture achieves these results as well.
Now here’s where mindfulness is so amazing! Through meditation you have direct control and can consciously participate in this vagal de-stress stimulus. The practice is simple. You sit, lie, or stand and then consciously focus on your breathing. Take in deep, long breaths all the way into your abdomen with a focus on the exhalation. Then start to count: 4 seconds on the inhale and 8 seconds on the exhale. That’s it! It only takes a couple of minutes for the effects to take place. Studies have shown that blood pressure and heart rate drop with mindful breathing. Plus feelings of anxiety and stress will melt away. So next time you have a big speech to give or hectic day at work, try these techniques and reap the benefits.
Bradley Ruef is a student at Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and has significant training in mindfulness meditation. He has taught mindfulness classes and workshops for over 20 years.