That’s because the vagus nerve is the key to rest. It’s an essential part of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system, soothing your organs after the stressed fight-or-flight adrenaline response to danger. With our stressful lives, the adrenaline response is in chronic high-gear.
But you can help your vagus nerve do its soothing job, even lying in bed in the middle of the night.
What IS this nerve?
The vagus nerve (vagus means “wandering” in Latin) wanders from your brainstem down the sides of your neck to just about every part of your body. Most of its thousands and thousands of fibers are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve lets your brain know what is going on in your organs.
The vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. In fact, researchers have discovered that automatic stimulation (like a pacemaker) of the vagus nerve reduced symptoms of epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis.
Not all vagus nerves are the same, however. Stronger vagus activity—or higher vagal tone—reduces the chance of developing diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and even depression. And it increases concentration, memory, empathy, and even ability to have close friendships.
Most important for Restful Insomnia is this:
Improved vagal tone helps you relax more quickly after stress.
Improve your stress recovery
You don’t need technology to improve your vagal tone. You can do it with meditation and acupuncture, or you can put cold water on your face, especially after you exercise (!). That last one is not exactly helpful in the middle of the night.
However, many techniques help improve vagal tone when you can’t sleep. You may intuitively know some of the ones listed below, but if you also visualize how they calm your vagus nerve, you’ll make doing them more effective. Try these out when you want to rest:
- Breathe slowly.
- Exhale fully.
- Breathe from your belly, if that’s comfortable.
- Create internal chest pressure by lightly pinching your nostrils closed and breathing out. Be very gentle, so it doesn’t make you dizzy or rev you up.
- Exhale with an “h-h-h-h-h” sound, also called Ujayii breathing in yoga.
Humming to relax
In my book, Restful Insomnia, I wrote about how humming softly helps you relax. It seemed really odd—even a little weird—that humming would be soothing. But during my research, I realized why it works: humming (and singing) tones the vagus nerve.
Here’s what I wrote in my book:
“During a sleepless night, with a wildly adventurous mind, I hummed with each exhale. Try it. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. You can feel the vibrations in your lungs and throat, and you can hear the subtle sound coming from your nose.
“Use your imagination to send the hum around your body. Are your shoulders tense? Let the vibration loosen the muscles. Do your feet feel numb? Let the hum enliven them.“
Check this technique out when you can’t sleep, and see if it opens your doors to rest.
How do you support your last nerve?
Try these vagal toning techniques and share how well they worked on the Restful Insomnia Facebook page. And of course, you can contact me (Sondra [at] RestfulInsomnia.com) to learn how the Restful Insomnia coaching program offers you personalized ways to relax when you can’t sleep.
Upcoming this fall!
New services are on their way! This fall, Restful Insomnia will launch:
- New website—and logo
- Free webinar—Benefits of NOT Trying to Sleep(working title)
- Online trainings, including Can You Make Peace with the Nightand 5 Obstacles to a Peaceful Night
New webinar: Release 5 Obstacles to Rest