Anxiety and the Vagus Nerve

Anxiety and the Vagus Nerve

November was meant to offer a series based on Psychology Week. Unfortunately as of late October, the Australian Psychological Society had still not published a theme, so Prosper Health Collective is going to offer a mixed bag of what clinicians would like to share with you. I will be talking about the role of the vagus nerve in modulating our anxiety response.

This topic is inspired by my own recent experience of anxiety. Like many of us in Perth, I caught COVID-19 a few months ago. I noticed the night before I tested positive that I had a very fitful sleep, which was very unlike me. I suspect my body could tell something was amiss and it was trying to tell me as such. That started the process of difficulty falling asleep, even after recovering from COVID-19. I would do all the right things in terms of good sleep hygiene, including reading until I felt tired, then ‘bam’, I’d feel wide awake again. I wasn’t thinking or worrying about anything, but it was as if my body was telling me that I had to stay awake.

Being a clinical psychologist, I think I know a thing or two about anxiety and sleep. However practising everything I knew wasn’t helping my sleep, so I saw a somatic experiencing therapist. The therapist helped me understand that my difficulty falling asleep was my sympathetic nervous system being activated.

Why had it suddenly become so active at bedtime? Delving into my past helped me understand that having to socially isolate for a week in a one-person household might have triggered this sense of being left alone, which was what happened to me when I had childhood insomnia. I was not conscious of this association but that’s the thing with implicit memory… you might not consciously be aware that is what is happening, but that is how your body is processing it. In my case, it was activating the sympathetic nervous system.

In short, the sympathetic nervous system drives the ‘fight or flight’ response in stressful situations, while the parasympathetic nervous systems drives the ‘rest and digest’ response. The vagus nerve runs from the gut all the way to the brain and helps regulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Therapy helped me learn that I needed to tone the vagus nerve to produce more of a ‘rest and digest’ response, rather than a ‘fight or flight’. There are several ways to tone your vagus nerve:

  • Cold water immersion, such as splashing your face with cold water, or if you’re up for it, having a cold shower. You might do this at the end of your usual shower, initially for 30 seconds and then gradually increasing the duration
  • Meditation and yoga
  • Exercise, although make sure this is at least a few hours before your bed time, otherwise your body will be high on adrenalin
  • Humming, singing or chanting, as your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords

My personal favourite is a device called Sensate. I want to clarify that I don’t receive any financial benefit from promoting it. It’s a device that you place on your sternum that synchronises vibrations to sound tracks, signalling the vagus nerve to relax. It’s like meditation, but personally I find it more effective. Since using Sensate, I’m happy to report that I’m easily falling asleep again. It has certainly helped me better thrive!

If you are noticing that your vagus nerve is ‘dialled up’ and you are unable to enter that rest and digetst state, it might be worth trying one of these strategies. If they don’t work we would recommend speaking with a psychologist to see if they might be able to help you better understand what is activing your fight or flight response.

Jason Leong

Jason Leong is an experienced Clinical Psychologist who works with adolescents and adults on a wide range of presenting problems. Jason enjoys working from and ACT based framework and assisting clients to lead their lives to their fullest.