Engage Your Vagus Nerve :: Breathing Techniques For Relaxation And Insomnia Relief

Many of my therapy and coaching clients reach out for help because of concerns about the long-term impact of chronic stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia. Busy New Yorkers are no stranger to high levels of stress and sleepless nights that easily spiral into a regular problem. As clients begin to develop a negative relationship with bedtime and sleep, many will seek the help of a psychiatrist to obtain prescription medications in an effort to break the cycle. This is not a bad option in the short-term, but less than ideal as a long-term solution. It’s easy to develop dependence and an addiction to sleep and anxiolytic medications. I always recommend lifestyle modifications and attempts to make simple changes in the environment first. Before we move to information about engaging your vagus nerve and the relaxation response, let's clear the path to create an optimal environment for sleep. 

How can you modify your environment to promote better sleep? In addition to dimming the lights and reducing evening electronic stimulation, some helpful evening rituals include the following:

  • develop an evening ritual of meditation if only for ten minutes

  • focused breathing and progressive muscle relaxation

  • biofeedback

  • guided imagery

  • restorative yoga

  • gentle stretching to release tension in the body

  • a warm bath

  • a soothing warm drink such as milk, nut milk or non-caffeinated tea

  • herbs and homeopathic support

We breathe without thinking, but hit the pause for a moment and notice how you are breathing during the day? You may not be aware that throughout your busy day, your breathing has become shallow. Your thoughts likely contribute to this process as well. Negative thoughts, feelings, demands, the energy of others and pressure create tension in your body--at this point, you are inhaling longer than you're exhaling. The goal is to help you observe and notice this process throughout your day. Identifying this can help you move from a nervous system state where your amygdala is overactive to a state where more helpful part of the brain the pre-frontal cortex comes on board and signals to the amygdala that the alarm is not needed. 

Breathing keeps us alive! You may not know about the importance of enlisting your diaphragm and lungs to relax your nervous system. As you go about your day, you need your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to help with metabolism and keep you alert. This helps you manage the demands of the day. Necessary. However, as you move towards evening, your body needs to power down. No alarms are needed. it's the time to unwind, relax and begin to conserve energy. This is how the process of cellular renewal and healing occurs--at night, while you sleep. Enter the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS, your restoration ally. Your autonomic nervous system or ANS regulates vital organ function but both aspects of the PNS and SNS have important jobs.

With every inhale, you activate the SNS. This energizing function speeds up the heart rate and prepares the body for activity and alertness. When you exhale, the PNS is turned on which then activates the vagus nerve. This slows the heart rate. What do you need to know here? When you exhale, and especially when you consciously lengthen your exhale, this calms your nervous system and creates a natural sedation. Yes, drug free, natural sedation available to you, and as you practice this technique, you will begin to activate your vagus nerve which will help calm and heal your nervous system. If you already have a regular yoga, meditation or pranayama practice, you know that deep inhalation energizes and invigorates, while the process of exhalation calms, de-stresses, and grounds the body and nervous system. 

Experienced yoga practitioners already know how to work with these states and can activate deep relaxation or states of high energy. If you're trying to manage conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and depression, it's helpful to know how to breathe with intention and purpose. With respect to general health, lack of stimulation can contribute to depression, while over-stimulation can lead to anxiety and insomnia. Certain medications, recreational drug and alcohol use, sugar, uncontrolled stress and poor lifestyle habits can contribute to emotional health challenges. Whether you're struggling with anxiety or depression, it's good to know that you may be able to support positive health changes by focusing just on your breathing! How powerful is that? Therefore, I frequently suggest the following simple breathing techniques to activate your vagus nerve and PNS... 

  1. In bed with your room free from distractions, light and noise, settle in and allow your body to relax into the comfort of your bed.

  2. Breathe slowly, deeply and evenly at a relaxed pace. Connect to your body by placing hands on your belly or heart. When ready, take even deeper breaths, inhale and exhale evenly.

  3. When you're ready, continue inhaling for 4-7 counts and exhale for 6-10 counts. Do whatever ratio feels comfortable but extend the exhale. Feel your belly rise as you inhale slowly, enjoy the fall of your belly as you exhale. Slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing and extending the exhale activates the vagus nerve and the Relaxation Response.

  4. As you deepen into relaxation, you may begin to observe your thoughts. Notice the sounds in your environment and various sensations in the body. As you do this, gently bring your awareness back to the rhythm of the breath.

When the sun greets you in the morning, you can consider lengthening the inhalation to energize your body, as needed throughout the day to activate the SNS, giving you the necessary energy to move through your day. When you feel stressed take a pause during your day to reactivate your PNS.  

Cheat sheet...

  • Longer inhale for energy and alertness

  • Longer exhale to activate the vagus nerve and relaxation response