Can You Reset the Vagus Nerve for Stress Relief?

My TikTok algorithm has figured out that I feel a fair amount of stress and anxiety, and gives me all kinds of suggestions to resolve it. Most recently, it’s started showing me techniques to reset the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, running from your brain to your intestines, and it is responsible for regulating your digestion, heart rate, breathing, and other reflexes. Most of these “reset” videos show self-massage on the tissues around the vagus nerve, which are supposed to help with stress and anxiety.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

You have 12 paired nerves in the back of your brain that send signals between your brain and torso — these are your cranial nerves. Some of them have sensory functions, some of them have motor (movement) functions, and some (like the vagus nerve) have both. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, and the longest, and it is the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system—the “rest and digest” nervous system.

The vagus nerve stretches from the brain to the large intestine, and branches off along the way to innervate other organs. It splits on either side of the neck as the left vagus nerve and right vagus nerve. The vagus nerve reset techniques I’ve seen generally focus on massaging the tissues surrounding the left and right vagus nerve.

Below is a (very) detailed image of how the vagus nerve innervates different parts of the body.

Image from Netter Images

The vagus nerve works in the way other nerves work by sending electrochemical signals around the body. Efferent neurons work to move signals from the brain to organs and muscles, and afferent neurons pick up on sensory stimuli and send signals to the brain. This is another area where the vagus nerve is kind of weird—it has both efferent and afferent neurons. This means it sends signals from the gut to the brain and vice-versa.

Why is the Vagus Nerve Important in Stress?

When people refer to the vagal nerve’s function, they might call it “vagal tone.” Vagal tone can be measured indirectly by heart rate variability, which is a measure of the time between each heart beat. While we measure heart rate in beats per minute, there is sometimes variability between each beat. Having a higher heart rate variability suggests a better ability to adapt to stressors. However,

The vagus nerve is also the center of something called the “gut-brain axis“— the communication pathway between your brain, gut, and the microbiota that live there.

I first became interested in the gut-brain axis in grad school, where I took on a research project looking into the relationship between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depression. At least half of IBS patients also have a psychological disorder, and while the link between these diseases is well documented, it’s not really well understood.

The high prevalence of psychological disorders and gut problems in the same people is something that we don’t fully understand. It might be a serotonin thing. It might be a microbiome thing. It might be something else, I find it all fascinating! (If you think this kind of gut-brain axis stuff is cool, I HIGHLY recommend Dr. Elaine Hsiao’s episode of the Ologies podcast.)

But what we do know is this: the vagus nerve is involved in the activation and regulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis). This is the hormonal pathway that coordinates your response to stress and the release of cortisol. In turn, this also impacts digestion, nutrient absorption, and nutrient storage.

Can you reset the vagus nerve?

Most of the videos I’ve seen on TikTok talk about resetting or stimulating the vagus nerve. This terminology makes sense from a psychological standpoint, as thinking of this as a way to “reset” might help people mentally reset and reframe their stressors. There’s a fair amount of evidence to show that how we respond to stress can be positively impacted by reframing (even if doing so doesn’t decrease the physiological impact of stress).

But to address whether you can actually reset the vagus nerve itself… well, no. From a physiological standpoint, you can’t “reset” a nerve, and the vagus nerve is no exception. Our bodies aren’t machines, and there’s very few things we can just hit the “reset” button on.

While I don’t think there’s much harm to be done in massaging your vagus nerve or doing different movements to reset it, the idea that this can cure your anxiety and stress outright is a bit too good to be true. After all, if it was as easy as a 5-minute self-massage, we’d all just be doing that.

But this doesn’t mean that the technique is useless—vagus nerve massage has still been found effective at increasing heart rate variability and decreasing self-reported stress. The catch? Vagus nerve massage doesn’t seem to be any more effective than a standard soft shoulder massage. While the literature comparing vagus nerve massage to standard massages is pretty slim, there is a good amount of evidence to suggest that all modalities of massage outperform control groups for stress management.

It’s also worth noting here that vagus nerve massage is different than vagus nerve stimulation. Vagus nerve stimulation is an epilepsy and depression treatment that involves an implanted device. This device wraps around the vagus nerve and provides an electric stimulus to the vagus nerve. While there is some preclinical evidence for this same type of vagus nerve stimulation in treating other diseases like fibromyalgia or chronic pain, it’s not a currently approved treatment.

The best tools for self-massage for stress

While vagus nerve massage techniques seem to be effective, it’s probably just due to the fact that massage in general is helpful in reducing stress and tension. You probably don’t need to have specific vagus nerve massages in order to reduce stress. While getting a professional massage is great, it’s not always accessible. Self-massage is still a great way to reduce stress and tension.

Your hands are obviously a great tool for self-massage, but sometimes you need a little bit of assistance to not tire yourself out. I have an entire bin in my house dedicated to self-massage tools, but these are the ones I keep reaching for.

On its own, it looks like a weird plastic dinosaur, but this is a great portable massage tool that will keep your hand from hurting. It’s super cheap and portable (there are versions of this tool available nearly everywhere and it is a life saver!)

I’ve used a variety of massage balls and lacrosse balls to help release tension in my neck, but this “peanut” shaped one is probably the best for the neck. There are tons of YouTube videos that explain how best to use it, but I just like to roll over it slowly and focus on my neck and shoulders.

This is also a weird shaped device but is great for getting knots out of places you can’t reach. They come in different shapes, but I personally like the one with the two balls on the top hook – this is great for getting either side of the neck and you can just rest the weight of your arms on it to really get into knots.

I initially had the OG Theragun, but found it to be way too strong, even on the lowest setting. While this was fine on my glutes or quads, it didn’t feel good on my shoulders. I sold it and bought a Theragun mini and haven’t looked back. This works well on small and large areas of the body, but isn’t too intense. I am such a big fan!

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