I suffer from chronic anxiety.
Over the years, I discovered many natural strategies that allowed me to be a highly functioning anxious person. When I was religious about exercise, careful about sleep and diet and limited alcohol, I felt better, but it wasn’t until I started practicing the parasympathetic pause that I really started to experience a noticeable shift.
So noticeable that I assumed there must be research to support my personal experience (spoiler alert: there is!).
Research titled “Fear and anxiety take a double hit from vagal nerve stimulation” documents how activating your parasympathetic nervous system via vagus nerve stimulation helps to quell anxiety and fear – even when fear is too strong for exposure therapy.
For years, I have known that stimulating my vagus nerve by topically applying Parasympathetic® blend behind my earlobe on my mastoid bone shifted me out of anxiety and fear. I just didn’t know how or why it worked.
I’m excited to share the science and the how and why so that others can benefit from my most powerful anxiety hack.
How Parasympathetic Calms Fear and Anxiety
Activating your parasympathetic nervous system helps to inhibit anxiety normally provoked by specific stimulus, according to the research. What’s more, the effect seems to be added and cumulative as strengthening parasympathetic tone (through repeated stimulation of the vagus nerve) helped to combat anxiety disorders.
The research found that anti-anxiety chemicals released by the vagus nerve increase parasympathetic tone and stress tolerance which contribute to faster recovery time from illness, injury, stress, and emotional trauma.
For example, the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine calms you down by relaxing the smooth muscles in your artery walls, dilating the arteries, and slowing your heartbeat. It also helps build our long-term and short-term memories (read more about Acetylcholine).
Neuroscience research suggests that vagal nerve stimulation may enhance memory consolidation and enhancement which may help with the processing of fear memories, which helps inhibit exaggerated fear expression, like anxiety.
Your vagus nerve helps your autonomic nervous system communicate fear and danger information to your amygdala. In simple terms, the vagus nerve detects the release of the stress hormone epinephrine which acts as a “something important just happened” signal that is communicated to other fear centers in the brain. Activation or inhibition of this signal “can enhance or decrease the rate of fear extinction.”
An ideal treatment would be one that eliminates the anxiety-inducing aspects of autonomic arousal but retains the memory consolidating components by bypassing epinephrine and stimulate the vagus nerve directly. Vagus nerve stimulation was able to maintain the positive effects on memory consolidation while also reducing anxiety and enhancing mood.
“By enhancing fear extinction while quelling anxiety, vagal stimulation delivers a double hit against maladaptive fear. This may make vagal stimulation particularly useful in cases where severe anxiety prevents effective exposure therapy.”
Separate research explores how stress and relaxation chemicals triggered by the nervous system might influence anxiety. As you know, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a cascade of stress hormones like cortisol that support your “fight or flight” response.
Vagus Nerve and Relaxation Response
The vagus nerve controls your relaxation response. In addition to helping you relax by releasing acetylcholine, the vagus nerve’s tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fiber-optic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down.
This is one way the vagus nerve helps counterbalance the effects of the sympathetic nervous system – by signaling for the release of prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, all of which dampen the sympathetic activation and help you calm down, manage and recover more quickly from stress, which helps offset anxiety.
“Centrally released oxytocin has behavioral effects, particularly on social behaviors, and appears to have a calming influence,” according to Science Direct’s “Neurochemistry of Prosocial Decision Making: The Role of Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin”.
Your vagus nerve plays a key role in the release of oxytocin through a chemical cascade which begins with the release of cholecystokinin (CCK) – is a peptide hormone of the gastrointestinal system responsible for stimulating the digestion of fat and protein – which then stimulates oxytocin secretion.
What’s more interesting is the dynamic or interaction between Oxytocin and Vasopressin, also called antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which appear to modulate the love-fear reaction in humans. Research on brain regions found that Oxytocin and Vasopressin play a role in brain regions associated with fear and fear reduction, with Oxytocin acting to inhibit fear and support high levels of social engagement, social bonds, and social reward.
“Vasopressin may be of critical importance in the capacity for physical and emotional adaption in the presence of stressful experiences”, such as anxiety, “and is sometimes considered a “stress-coping” molecule.” In relation to anxiety, the research finds that “anxiety can reduce the capacity to use cognitive or “top down” strategies to manage stressful experiences”
Vasopressin helps to support the psychological processes that help regulate emotional states, like anxiety, by enhancing those “top down” strategies through enhancement of memory necessary for the avoidance of danger or survival.
You can naturally stimulate your vagus nerve by topically applying our stimulatory Parasympathetic® behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone where the vagus nerve is closest to the surface of your body.
Stimulating your vagus nerve also triggers the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into an area of the brain called the amygdala, which strengthens memory storage and improves your ability to process and retain information.
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