How to go from fight-or-flight into rest-and-digest within minutes, as told by scientists.
So the word on the street is that the vagus nerve controls our sense of well-being and relaxation. Recently, scientists have established that activating the vagus nerve can slow down your heart rate, switch off the inflammatory hormone cortisol and release an orchestra of calming chemicals into your system.
“We know that depressed people have low vagal activity, and this is associated with less intonation and less-active facial expressions,” says Tiffany Field, PhD.
What is the vagus nerve, and how come you’ve never heard about it? The largest cranial nerve of the human body, the vagus nerve is a part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS,) which is responsible for rest-and-digest processes. Scientists are only now learning about its influence on the human experience:
- We know that the vagus nerve cools down inflammatory responses
- We know that the vagus nerve helps strengthen our memory
- We know that the vagus nerve controls our heart rate
- We know that the vagus nerve releases the ‘chill out’ hormone
- We know that the vagus nerve is responsible for the ‘gut feeling’
- We know that the vagus nerve can make you faint
- We know that the vagus nerve can be stimulated
So far, the best stimulation we’ve had was via electronic devices. From chest implants to non-invasive devices, vagus nerve stimulation was always seen as a means of last resort for epilepsy and depression patients who do not respond to other treatments.
Now, however, scientists are establishing links between vagus nerve activity and a simple breathing technique.
4:8 Breathing Technique — Effective In Activating the Vagus Nerve
For all its complexity, the vagus nerve seems to have a relatively simple role: to calm us down. Otto Loewi, a Nobel prize winner, first discovered the “chill hormone” acetylcholine during a medical experiment.
While experimenting with frogs, he noticed that “a tranquilizing substance squirted directly out of the vagus nerve onto the heart, which caused a frog’s heart rate to slow down immediately.” He coined the hormone “vagusstoff.”
What scientists are now finding is what yogis have long practiced. In 2018, two researchers from the Netherlands have found that slow-breathing techniques with longer exhalations stimulate the vagus nerve. “Longer exhalations” means that your exhalations are longer than your inhalations.
Another 2019 study has found that these breathing techniques significantly improve people’s decision making ability. Just by practicing the 4:8 technique for 2 minutes, test participants reported significantly lower levels of stress and answered more test questions correctly.
There seems to be a link between long exhalations and the activation of the vagus nerve, and that’s why the 4:8 technique works so well.
It’s simple enough: all you have to do is to control your breathing, and then make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. It helps to count to 4 while you’re inhaling, and then to 8 as you’re exhaling. It also helps to inhale through your nose and exhale through pressed lips.
My Experience With the 4:8 Technique
I wouldn’t say that this breathing technique is some magic bullet to all my anxiety problems, but it did definitely produce an effect. After 10 rounds of 4-to-8 breathing, I fell asleep within minutes, and it was some of the best sleep I’ve had in weeks.
Research shows that many controlled breathing techniques are effective in reducing stress, but I think what makes the 4:8 method so valuable is because it’s so unnatural. It feels clumsy and weird to keep exhaling for twice as long as you’re inhaling. As a result, the technique constantly keeps you engaged and focused, whereas other breathing techniques lose me after a few rounds.
What I also found valuable is setting an overall goal: I told myself that I’d do 25 rounds of 4:8 breathing. Setting a goal enabled me not to judge or over-analyze my sensations as they were happening, and instead focus entirely on the breathing. In that way, the exercise also felt a bit like meditation.
One thing is for sure: breathing works. Zen guides have known this for years, and scientists are now catching up. Controlled breathing obviously isn’t strong enough to help you get over a serious life issue, but if you’re a chronic overthinker who finds themselves stressed out for no apparent reason — definitely give this a try.