NEWS Mental Health News Can Vagus Nerve Therapy Regulate Mood and Anxiety? By Lo Styx Lo Styx Lo is a freelance journalist focused on mental health, sexual wellness and patient advocacy. She is based in Brooklyn and can be found on the internet @laurenstyx. Learn about our editorial process Updated on October 15, 2022 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Karen Cilli Fact checked by Karen Cilli Karen Cilli is a fact-checker for Verywell Mind. She has an extensive background in research, with 33 years of experience as a reference librarian and educator. Learn about our editorial process Share Tweet Email Print bymuratdeniz / Getty Images Key Takeaways The vagus nerve runs throughout your body and contributes to mood regulation, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.Experts say stimulating the vagus nerve can be an effective and accessible method of treating anxiety.Stimulating the vagus nerve can be as simple as humming or splashing cold water on the face. Often referred to as the "wandering" nerve, the vagus nerve runs from the brainstem, through the neck, chest, and abdomen as our longest cranial nerve. It carries messages between the brain, organs, and digestive system, and serves as a main part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for mood regulation, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. Because of the vagus nerve's role in the gut-brain axis, experts are paying attention to its potential for mitigating mood and managing conditions like anxiety and depression. Various forms of vagus nerve therapy or "toning" exist, but how effective are they? How Stress Affects the Vagus Nerve The Vagus Nerve and Mental Health Trauma specialist Valarie Harris, LPC-MHSP, works primarily with veterans dealing with PTSD or military sexual trauma (MST). She notes that individuals who've lived through trauma often experience an overactive vagus nerve, which can manifest as anxiety and irregular moods, as well as symptoms like nausea, bowel issues, and random pains. Many specialists refer to polyvagal theory, which suggests that the vagus nerve plays a critical part in our response mechanisms to stress, such as the fight or flight response. "The communication between your 'first' brain in your head and your 'second' brain in your gut is instantaneous," says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, who refers to himself as a psychonutritionist. "The vagus nerve is how a stressful experience can make you feel sick to your stomach almost immediately and how having food poisoning can leave you feeling anxious." Shawn M. Talbott, PhD The vagus nerve is how a stressful experience can make you feel sick to your stomach almost immediately and how having food poisoning can leave you feeling anxious. — Shawn M. Talbott, PhD Talbott runs mental wellness retreat 3 Waves Wellness, where he treats patients using a number of therapeutic modalities, including vagal nerve activation, also referred to as vagal toning. This involves stimulating the vagus nerve through gentle rhythmic pulses, which can be achieved through an implanted device or simple manual exercises like humming or deep breathing. "You exercise the vagus nerve to improve its efficiency for sending signals," Talbott says. "In a similar manner to how regular running exercises your leg muscles, making you a more efficient runner, the same is true for vagal toning." There are other ways to manually stimulate the vagus nerve. Videos have circulated on TikTok discussing vagus nerve icing, which requires plunging your face in ice water or holding ice on your chest. However, this isn't always a safe option for people with certain health conditions. Harris points out that even splashing cold water on the face can be helpful. For individuals with more severe irregularities, a device can be implanted that uses electrical pulses to tone the nerve. Harris uses a low energy neurofeedback system, or LENS, for individuals experiencing more severe symptoms. "(It's) different from traditional neurofeedback in that the goal is not training the brain, but rather allowing a person's physiology to direct the course of treatment to support the body's natural desire for homeostasis," Harris says. An Overview of Coherent Breathing Does It Work? Only small studies have been completed around vagus nerve stimulation for conditions like depression, headaches, and epilepsy, so research is still needed to know its true impact. But plenty of experts have seen positive results in their practice. Susanna Harkonen, a registered counselor and clinical trauma professional in Switzerland, says the vagus nerve is at the core of her work with clients. While she notes that results vary, she considers polyvagal theory a game-changer for both herself and her practice. Patients that have undergone vagal toning, especially with the Safe & Sound Protocol, which stimulates the vagus nerve through non-invasive listening therapy, have reported improvements in sleep and digestion, as well as equilibrium and performance of certain physical tasks, for some. Patients have also noted less rumination, better focus, and a greater ability to be proactive and speak their minds. Susanna Harkonen, Clinical Trauma Professional I have witnessed a positive impact on panic attacks, grief, anxiety, depression, depersonalization, sleeping disturbances, porous boundaries, and much more. — Susanna Harkonen, Clinical Trauma Professional "I have witnessed a positive impact on panic attacks, grief, anxiety, depression, depersonalization, sleeping disturbances, porous boundaries, and much more," Harkonen says. Talbott has seen patients come away more relaxed and calm after as little as one session, but continued practice a few times a week can lead to noticeable improvement in stress resilience and overall mood, as well. He also notes that vagal toning can also be a good option for individuals with little time for other more involved therapeutic interventions, as it can be practiced at the same time as breath work and meditation. Practicing vagal toning requires curiosity about the nervous system, Harkonen says, and this can lead to a greater sense of responsibility for our states of mind, as well as increased overall safety. "The polyvagal theory takes away much of the shame and guilt that people feel about their less than constructive behaviors and reactions and enables real healing to take place," she says. "It isn’t all in the mind!" What This Means For You While more research is needed, vagus nerve stimulation may be an effective and accessible method of stress and mood regulation. Speak with your doctor or a mental health professional to determine whether it's a good option for you. One Woman's Journey and Success With Ketamine Therapy 3 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain–gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:44. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044 Goggins E, Mitani S, Tanaka S. Clinical perspectives on vagus nerve stimulation: present and future. Clinical Science. 2022;136(9):695-709. doi:10.1042/CS20210507 Howland RH. Vagus nerve stimulation. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep. 2014;1(2):64-73. doi:10.1007/s40473-014-0010-5 See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.