Via NBC’s “Community”

How to “hack” your vagus nerve and combat chronic stress

In 1921 scientists discovered a nerve that helps us relax. Over the past century, we’ve uncovered some surprising ways to activate it.

Last night, I laid in bed, scrolling through an Instagram account of admittedly hilarious skiing accidents: My heart raced as I held my breath, cringed, and giggled watching videos of skiers “double ejecting” their skis, blasting face-first into snowdrifts, and “tomahawking” spread eagle down bunny slopes. Then I promptly rolled over and tried to fall asleep.

I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. And in the age of the endless scroll, it’s no wonder our bodies are so dang confused.

We’re constantly bombarding our eyeballs with time- and location-inappropriate stimulus: From a breakfast of heated twitter debates to a bed-time snack of Bachelorette tears, our bodies don’t get a lot of conscious, unstimulated time.

That means our sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system is often active when we don’t need it and our cortisol levels — and rates of chronic stress — are higher than ever.

Is this article stressing you out? Don’t worry, there’s an antidote to all this:

Specifically, the vagus nerve. Discovered in 1921 by Nobel Prize winner Otto Loewi, the vagus nerve controls both our sympathetic and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system.

We tap our parasympathetic system when we need to relax, recover from a long day, or care for those around us. So, how does it work?

When the vagus nerve is stimulated in a certain way, it lowers our heart rate by releasing a neurotransmitter called “acetylcholine,” also known as “vagus stuff,” (Loewi’s name for it at the time), or “chill juice” (my term for it right now).

Our body’s ability (or inability) to actually rest when we’re at rest is known as “vagal tone.”

Athletes, people who meditate regularly typically have a more active parasympathetic (resting) system, or “high vagal tone.”

Neuroscientists have also found links to increased vagal tone in people who journal regularly, have regular, positive social interactions, or volunteer in their communities.

But, there is one insanely simple way to increase vagal tone that you can do at your desk right/on your bus/in your bed now:

This isn’t just regular breathing, this is advanced breathing.

Psychology Today writes that engaging your diaphragm activates the vagal nerve and counteracts our “fight-or-flight” stress response — releasing acetylcholine and lowering our heart rate.

To achieve the effect, breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips so that your exhalation lasts twice as long as your inhalation (4 counts in, 8 counts out). The longer your exhale, the more powerful the calming sensation.

For maximum diaphragm action, rather than sucking in your stomach as you inhale, your belly should expand as your lungs fill (try resting your hand on your stomach to test).

Pro tip: Using a visual cue can help you focus more softly on your breath.

(Sync your breath to the GIF above, or check out the Dodow device, which uses a dim pulsing light to help you adjust your breathing and fall asleep)

This is an exercise we do with all of our Speechless clients to prepare for a big talk or presentation because, frankly, it works.

And for all of you disappointed that our hack was simply “deep breathing” — you can always try another tactic correlated to vagal tone: Positive, vocal “self-talk” in the third-person.

But I’m guessing that one won’t be as well-received in your open office…

— Lindsey, Resident Wordsmith at Speechless

The Point: Lengthen your exhale to inject your heart with chill juice.



FLS+ helps teams and individauls flex their mental muscles through collaborative improvisation and play. Learn more at!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

FLS+ helps teams and individauls flex their mental muscles through collaborative improvisation and play. Learn more at!