The question becomes: how can you strengthen your vagal tone? The most prominent way is to work on deep, diaphragmatic breathing, as breath is one of the vagus nerve’s key regulators. The more slowly and deeply you can breathe, the more you can summon this rest-and-digest mode and relax. In fact, making noises such as humming, chanting, or praying also invokes the same effect, as the vagus nerve is connected to the voice box and larynx. You can also practice splashing yourself (start with the face) with cold water, as it briefly evokes your fight-or-flight response, but then allows you to practice summoning your rest-and- digest response. The vagus nerve makes it clear that you have the ability to control your physical response, thus giving your brain the chance to think at peak performance. The vagus nerve is also the embodiment of the inseparable nature of the brain and the body. As the vagus nerve shows us, to boost your brain, you must focus on everything that supports and surrounds it.
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Remember the link between the vagus nerve and your heart rate? Because the connection is so close, improving the vagus nerve helps heart health—and boosting heart health improves the vagus nerve. So, take care of your heart. You already know you need to exercise, but make sure you’re including plenty of cardio in the mix. Strive for a lower resting heart rate, which naturally leads to a well-toned vagus nerve, and as always, opt for a heart-healthy diet.
Knowing what you now know about the vagus nerve, make an effort to literally trust your gut more. Practice meditation daily, even for short periods, and make a habit of tuning in to your physical sensations and nurturing that body awareness and mind- body connection. Vague feelings and intuitions are not groundless—they are often the corporeal sensations that have been sent to your higher brain by your vagus nerve. Literally: listen to your gut! In keeping with the ongoing importance of relaxation, remember to build in plenty of time every day for rest and downtime, doing nothing in particular. Encourage a state of “rest and digest” whenever you can.
This could be a self-care ritual, therapy, sleep, time spent with family, or anything that allows you to let go and slow down.
With time, you can start to view any stressful or challenging situation in life as a valuable opportunity for emotional mastery—except this time you’ll be approaching the problem not from a purely psychological perspective, but with an understanding that your entire being is involved.
The wonderful thing about working with your vagus nerve is the understanding that your consciousness can in fact be in control, at any time. No matter how stressed you feel, how out of control or how low, you can always stop, take a breath and do something objectively healthy for you.
This means that many of the tricks and activities we typically associate with emotional and spiritual health—such as visualization and meditation—in fact have demonstrable physical effects, and can be as beneficial for our physical health as good diet and exercise. For example, the next time you’re under pressure, feeling upset or stressed, pause to literally visualize your vagus nerve. Talk to it, even. Visualize your entire body calming down in whatever way seems appealing to you—picture a soothing golden light washing over you, envision your nerves as ropes that are literally slackening and loosening, or imagine with each exhale you are releasing tensions and worrisome thoughts with the breath.
The wonderful thing about developing and nurturing whole-body wellness is that you are entirely at liberty to do what works for you. You don’t have to divide yourself up into components—your body requiring such-and-such intervention, your mind demanding a separate approach, and so on.
Rather, there are only healthful activities that support our total, dynamic wellness— healthy habits that are not tacked onto life as an afterthought, but built into the very way we live every day and each moment.
So, combine a self-care ritual like a hot bath with meditation; develop a daily journaling habit, or spend every evening taking a walk in nature with friends—an activity that boosts your cardiovascular health, activates your vagus nerve and strengthens your emotional connections to those you love, adding meaning and depth to life. When you’re at work or studying, take it easy, safe with the knowledge that forcing yourself through unpleasant work will not make you any smarter or your memory any sharper.
Instead, relax often, knowing it’s this loose, unstructured time that will help your brain, creativity and intellect be the best it can be.
You’ll be all the better prepared to challenge yourself when necessary! Keep a fine balance in your life between action and inaction, between boredom and challenge, between sleep and waking.
Paradoxically, we perform best when we seek not high accomplishment and the extremes of achievement, but rather holistic balance. Living this way not only yields better results, it feels better. Make positive thinking, mantras and meditation a non- negotiable part of a healthy lifestyle, just as important as drinking water and eating your veggies.
Support your neuroplasticity by getting out there and enjoying life, trying new things, learning, changing your mind, evolving.
Exercise is good for you, but who says it has to be in a sterile, boring gym where you run in place on a treadmill? Why not instead hike up a challenging mountain and give your artistic side a workout at the top by taking some creative pictures of the view? We all know how important the right foods are for our memory and cognitive health, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also use healthy food as a means of expression, a challenging hobby, a way to connect with loved ones, or even a method to participate meaningfully in one’s culture and heritage.
Using meditation, rest, creativity and social interaction to rewire your vagus nerve is not only possible, it’s smart. Have you ever noticed that some people seem to do certain things with so much more ease than others? Perhaps you went to school with a student who didn’t seem to study all that hard, and wasn’t exactly super intelligent, and yet they performed well on tests despite not having studied as much as others. What such students might have inadvertently discovered is all the other ways to support brain health that don’t look like slaving over a book or drawing mind maps.
If you’re trying to optimize your brain, look at the rest of your life and ask whether you are doing enough to support your cognitive abilities. Examine your daily schedule and make a more conscious effort to include plenty of dynamic exercise, social engagements, challenging and meaningful work, enough water, sleep, good food eaten in good company, and as always, as many creative and out-of-the-box solutions as you can muster to the ordinary problems of daily life.
Picture your vagus nerve—and your entire nervous system—as a kind of emotional and mental regulatory system. Think carefully about how you’re going to be active in managing stress levels. Quitting a draining job, avoiding people who worsen your mood or taking up a completely unrelated hobby are not the first things you might imagine when trying to improve your intellectual capacity, but they may ultimately do more for you than number puzzles or forcing yourself to listen to classical music if it bores you!
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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