Vagus Nerve Part 1: The Connection Between the Vagus Nerve and Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health conditions in the world, affecting an estimated 40 million adults in the United States. Anxiety can be about anything – from everyday concerns, such as money and relationships, to more serious problems, such as health and safety. Most people with an anxiety disorder know that their thoughts and feelings are excessive or unreasonable. But that doesn’t make them any less distressing. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders can be quite debilitating, making it difficult for people to lead normal lives. In this blog we will explore the role of the Vagus Nerve.
Cause of Anxiety
While the cause of anxiety disorders is not fully understood, it is believed that they may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Recently, however, researchers have been looking at the role that the vagus nerve may play in anxiety disorders. Studies have shown that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can reduce anxiety symptoms in patients with anxiety disorders.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest and one of the most complex nerves in the body. It starts in the brainstem and extends down to the abdomen, where it innervates many organs including the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It is responsible for a variety of involuntary bodily processes and functions, including heart rate, digestion, speech, swallowing, blood pressure, hearing, taste, circulation, orgasms and breathing.
The vagus nerve communicates with the brain, sending and receiving messages between the brain and the body. When the vagus nerve is functioning in a healthy manner, it allows us access to areas of the brain that impact our creativity, higher cognition and complex decision making. When our vagus nerve is impacted by high stress and inner tension, we typically only have access to primal and instinctual areas of the brain that control our fight-or-flight response.
The Vagus Nerve and Mental Health
Based on this understanding, it is important to recognize ways in which the vagus nerve plays a role in and is impacted by our mental health. Recent research has shown that it may be a key player in anxiety disorders. Research suggests that the functioning of our vagus nerve as well as the signals that are communicated to the brain are greatly influenced by stress, anxiety, habits impacting our physical health, substance use and burn out from overworking.
Nutrition, exercise and sleep also greatly impact the stimulation and response of the vagus nerve. With this knowledge, it is important to recognize that these factors greatly influence our mood and ability to function both physically and mentally and that ensuring these areas of our life are in balance is a priority to addressing anxiety and mood-related symptoms.
Mood, Emotions, and Stress
From the aforementioned statements, we understand that the vagus nerve sends signals to the brain that affect mood and emotions as well as the ways in which we respond to our external environment and daily stressors. Our vagus nerve can greatly influence our decision making abilities and executive brain functions, making it difficult to access logical and more strategic behavioral skills needed for long term functioning.
Our lifestyle greatly impacts our vagus nerve’s performance and often when it is not functioning in a healthy way, our body becomes more susceptible to mental health disorders and physical diseases, such as anxiety, depression, hypertension, cardiovascular disorder, digestive disorders, kidney dysfunction, and chronic inflammation.
In Part II of this series, we will explore ways of naturally stimulating the vagus nerve and improving mental health through holistic techniques.
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