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The Vagus Nerve | Depression? Anxiety? Super (Self) Stimulating Subject Matter

Panic Attack Symptoms

“Man, Bill, these panic attack symptoms are taking me out. And I swear major depressive disorder is on-board, as well as butt-kicking stress. Come on, there has to be a creative relief angle here. Something I can put to work right bloody now!”

Well, you know me – always scrounging around for helpful tidbits out there. And I came upon something I think you’re going to like. Something you can use right now.

So what say we chat the vagus nerve (trust me, this is hot)? Oh, and it’s not about working up the courage to increase your bets the next time you hit the casino.

The Vagus Nerve

But when it comes to depression and anxiety relief, you don’t have to fool with invasive or non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation. Nope, you can learn and practice vagal maneuvers.

Okay, so the vagus nerve is the 10th of our 12 cranial nerves. What makes cranial nerves unique is their emergence in pairs from the brain, as opposed to the nerves that thread outward through the spinal cord. With the exception of the optic nerve, the cranial nerves are components of the peripheral nervous system, which serves as a communication relay between the brain and the extremities.

So back to the vagus nerve. In medieval Latin, “vagus” literally means “wandering.” What a perfect fit, because the cord-thick vagus nerve (remember, there are two) originates in the brain stem, extends through the neck and chest, and terminates in the abdomen.

And what does it do? Well, it supplies parasympathetic fibers to our organs from the neck to the top of the colon, with the exception of the adrenal glands.

This parasympathetic biz is huge for us, so let’s stay with it for a bit. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest”/”feed and breed” activities that occur when we’re at “rest.” Its action is considered complementary to that of the sympathetic nervous system – responsible for stimulating fight/flight response activities.

So that means the vagus nerve orchestrates dynamics such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure, downward movement through the gastrointestinal tract, a number of muscle movements in the mouth (including speech), and keeping the larynx open for breathing.

By the way, have you ever heard of vasovagal syncope (fainting)? Well, excessive activation of the vagus nerve during emotional stress – a parasympathetic overcompensation of a strong stress/anxiety-induced response – is at play. It’s all about a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure. Heck, it can even result in loss of bladder control during moments of extreme fear.

The Vagus Nerve | (Self) Stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been used to control seizures since 1979. Well, the procedure, which uses a pace-maker-like device implanted in the chest, has recently been approved for treating tough cases of depression. And how ’bout this? A non-invasive VNS device is under development and will soon be ready for clinical trials.

But when it comes to depression and anxiety relief, you don’t have to fool with invasive or non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation. Nope, you can learn and practice vagal maneuvers. Here are just a few…

  • Immersing your face in cold water (diving reflex)
  • Attempting to exhale against a closed airway (Valsalva maneuver). It’s usually done by closing your mouth, and pinching your nose shut while pressing out as if blowing up a balloon. A modified – less impactful on the Eustachian tubes – version can be performed by breathing with the glottis (the vocal folds and the opening between them) partially closed. Just do the exhale while making a “Hhhh” sound, like when you’re cleaning your glasses.
  • Singing
  • Tensing your stomach muscles as if to bear down to have a bowel movement (carefully, now)
  • Diaphragmatic breathing techniques

Hey, I’m not into yoga, though I so want to give it a go. Anyway, I’m told basic yoga routines can stimulate the vagus nerve. And yoga-associated activities can, as well. Included is chanting – listening and vocalizing. Incidentally, I find making soft and low-tone chanting/moaning vocalizations very soothing.

Oh, one more idea. I’m really into visualization – it’s always worked well for me. So why not visualize that vagus nerve of yours being stimulated, and generating comfort? Go ahead, do a search for a vagus nerve image that hits home. And work it!

We’re Done

Hey, I don’t know what you’re dealing with – panic attack symptoms, major depressive disorder, stress, generalized anxiety disorder, etc. It’s our responsibility to do all we can to come up with management techniques – and practice them ’til they become just the way we do things.

I think (self) vagus nerve stimulation is one of those techniques. So learn more about it and give it a go, k?

image credit kenhub.com

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  • You know me, Bill – I love the science! If I suffered panic attack symptoms, major depressive disorder, stress, generalized anxiety disorder, etc, I would find this post hugely helpful. I’ll be sharing widely because many of my readers do, so thank you!!

    • Yeah, I figured you’d like this one, Lisa. Actually thought about you while writing it. These are the body-tricks of the trade. I mean, these are natural calming mechanisms our bodies just do. So why can’t we play it smart and flip the switch when we need to? Always nice having you here, Lisa. Thank you…

      Bill

  • God how I love it when you talk about nerves ‘n stuff. As an old chiro, I like to have fun by asking, “Hey, what causes nervousness? Well, the nervous system, that’s what!” Your thoughtfulness to put into words and actions what can seem dauntingly complicated, is really something, Bill. THIS is functional neurology. What can WE do to learn more about our mind-bodies as learning domains? And honest to god, who doesn’t like this–to know these slam dunk moves to take responsibility for our own health? I’m goin’ off on you here, but my last question is…why didn’t I think of this!?

    Truly helpful, boots on the ground, solid stuff, Bill. Thank you.

    • Well, there’s Herby! Glad you stopped-by and chimed-in. You bet, as an old chiro this stuff would be right up your alley. “Functional neurology” – perfect way to put it. I like it! There are so many things our bodies do to naturally calm us down. I mean, if they didn’t do these things we’d overload and very quickly burnout and keel over. So why not learn about them – and how to crank ’em up? Always “boots on the ground” content here, and I appreciate your acknowledgement. Peace, Herby…

      Bill

  • Patricia Miller

    This is an amazing bit of science and research. I had no clue about this and so while I had a couple of panic attacks earlier in the week, first time in a long time, I’ve been able to stave off repeats with these interventions. I just find this so practical and handy dandy. I was also thinking back to when I was a classroom teacher working with students with severe emotional/behavioral issues and when they were extremely distressed, I would frequently sing to them. They liked it, and I always found it calmed both of us down. Now I know why. You are a jolly good researcher!

    • …and you are a jolly good visitor and contributor. Just never know what I’ll pull out of my back pocket, huh. Glad it blends for you, Patricia. Kind of nice to know just why those “soothers” work, right? Thanks so much for stopping-in…

      Bill

  • Nancy Frye Peden

    Well I have figured I didn’t even have a functioning parasympathetic nervous system. But I have done a lot of yoga, chanting, zen and other things that get the breath way down in the belly and they work. I do find it a little hard to get to my lower belly when I am having trouble sleeping. My breath seems to stay up in my chest…good to have these new tips. Many thanks.

  • Nancy Frye Peden

    PS Deep diagrammatic breathing is very magical. When I do it in zen I get into an altered state…just sayin…Funny though the animated picture on wikipedia seems wrong, looks too high up. The whole trick is to let the belly expand on the inhale and then to deeply exhale for as long as you can comfortably do.

    • Hey, Nancy!

      Nice having you on board – and participating. Your input sure seems to be personally tested, making it valid as can be. It’s appreciated. Please come back, k?

      Bill

    • Nancy Frye Peden

      I meant deep diaphragmatic breathing….wikipedia explains it well. The picture just looks a little off. I think those are lungs not the diaphragm…

  • BCat

    Oh, gimme gimme that non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation!! I looked into getting the standard type done a while ago and it was muy expensivo and insurance doesn’t cover it. I truly think that a clenched up vagus goes a long way towards anxiety by causing that socked in the gut feeling in the solar plexus.

  • Susan

    I have a vagas nerve paraganglioma (Glomus location) that i had radiation therapy on 18 yrs ago (removal was not an option at that time). It was reduced by 90% After completion of 4500 RADS.
    Any suggestions or comments on the side effects of my choice as it pertains to and depression anxiety and pain?
    Just looking for some solutions to issues that seem to be haunting me right now, ie: the inability to let things go, anger issues, dehabilitaying depressive periods of time, excessive pain in my bones and joints.

    Please if any one has had these same issues and has had removal or RT of a paraganglioma of the tenth nerve, please let me know, I feel as if i am losing my mind and my BP has been off the charts as well.

    Thank you so very much , any comments are greatly appreciated.

    Susan

    • Hi, Susan!

      I’m glad you stopped-by Chipur and shared with us. Not knowing a thing about vagal paragangliomas, I spent about 45 minutes on the web in an effort to learn a thing or two. Wow! Guess I mostly learned how much I don’t know. Still, it was well worth the time.

      I don’t have to tell you how rare vagal paragangliomas are. And because they’re so rare, there really wasn’t much info available on the psychiatric manifestations of the condition, including post-radiation therapy. So I really can’t judge how much of what you experience is caused directly by your medical situation, or as a reaction to it.

      I’m curious what your physician has to say about the symptoms you experience. And I’m wondering if you’ve consulted with a therapist and/or psychiatrist. Sure would appreciate it if you’d provide more info, so I can try to be of more assistance.

      Thank you for your participation, Susan. Looking forward to hearing back from you…
      Bill

      • Susan

        Thank you Bill:
        I had thr opportunity to talk to my RT Doctor who is now in private practice by phone. He is as clueless to the new VNS and depression/anxiety/pain studies and admitted that I knew more than him about these sorts of new studies.
        So basically I am on my own on this venture. Yes,i have been to psychiatrists and NONE of them even know or care enough to research what you are talking about.
        I want you to understand this: The Dr’s that do encounter these normally do NOT want to touch you and will refer you to another location where you will see a Craniofacial specilist for removal. I was sent to one of two choices in the US, Denver for me. This Doctor was unbelievably a master of reconstruction. Six hour consult! 14 hr operation for removal. Years of speech therapy as the VAGUS NERVE MUST BE SACRIFICED. Stomach tube feeding, one year at best. I was 36 year old single parent with a 4 yr boy to raise, this was not an option.
        After pre ops I went to the summit (Rockies) ended up in Golden CO, woke up, called my son’s pediatrician, he called my Dr at Moffitt Cancer and got him on a three way call

      • Susan

        Btw: Antidepressants do not work for me Bill, (Either send me throygh the roof or knock me out) i have a high metabolism and am very nervous, i take medication for anxiety only and took this medication , first diagnosis at 11, valium, made me sleep. Couldn’t eat, stand to smell food, later in life Xanax to gain weight.

      • Amazing story of courage and survival, Susan. Damn, you’re tough as nails. So tell me, what about an open-minded, non-judgmental, in-the-moment with you counselor? Ever tried it? I mean, just because meds won’t work – that doesn’t mean you’re without alternatives. Yes?

      • Susan

        Yes any info to help someone or bring attention to this rare cell and their options, i would not mind at all. You can analyze the hell out of me if you would like, i will be most honest and forthcoming as well.

        Cell 813-713-3858
        Susan

      • Well, first of all, I removed your phone #, for your privacy/safety. I simply meant, have/are you working with a counselor? A good one can be very helpful when it comes to managing depression – and other issues with which you may be dealing…
        Bill

  • Sue Goodman

    I have nuerocardiogenticsyncope as well as panic disorder and agoriphobia. Basically the same as you discussed above. I run a low bp. I faint , sometimes its positional and sometimes its bam …peace out. Other times I call it the slow faint …I can feel it coming …very hard to explain what it feels like . My panic attacks happen when I sleep , reading , relaxing if im happy , stressed I also have triggers as well. Cars , public places , people , taking showers and the list continues . I have been doing exposure therapy which had increased them and there is nothing more frusterating than having a great day actually driving or like today I went out and played in the snow with my therapy dog who loved it and my fiance and bam ……I had to go home take my meds on the way breath do my tapping ,do all my coping skills to fight it off . It worked but the anxiety and tension is always there. I do relaxation techniques , I do run low on magnesium . I have had to have magnesium through IV a few times. I take a very good suppliment along with a ton of other vitamins and minerals to keep my body in check on nutrients. Most people are afraid they are going to die during a panic attack . I am so tired and worn out by them when I have panic attacks at that peak moment of the attack I welcome death. Sick I know. But my mind has switched from fear of the attack to just die so I can be at peace. My conditions started after a drunk driver hit me at a stop light at 85 miles an hour. I was not like this before. Sugar is horrible I dare not touch it. It increases my heart rate horribly. I have chronic kidney stone disease so I dont eat any stimulating foods 50 mg of oxcilates a day is strict. I would never wish this on anyone in the world. I have come a long way. I have good days and bad days . I have tachy days and faint days. I have days where i go out and weeks where I stay in my room. I have a ways to go . I hope to oneday live without panic and have a good day without the constant anxiety and tension. I have hope.

    • Hi, Sue. Thank you so much for stopping-by Chipur and contributing. The more information we have available here, the better for everyone.

      I have had clients who endure neurocardiogenic (vasovagal) syncope. Here’s a link to info for those who’d like to learn more http://www.cccgroup.info/neurosyn.asp. Though I’ve never had to deal with syncope, I can sure understand the terror of panic disorder, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety. Been quite some time since it was disabling; however, my memory is all too solid when it comes to those days. How horrible you came by all of this after an accident. What a damn shame, Sue.

      I’m impressed by all you do to manage your circumstances. It would be so easy to just give-up (and die so one can be at peace, as you say). But you’ve chosen to step-up and do all you can to get along. I admire that. And I hope, as well, you will live without panic, etc. one day. By the way, I truly believe that’s possible.

      Again, I appreciate your visit and participation, Sue. Come back when you can…
      Bill