PTSD Treatment I Tried It: Vagus Nerve Exercises How Vagus Nerve Exercises Saved My Mental Health After a Traumatic Breakup By Ariane Resnick, CNC Ariane Resnick, CNC Facebook Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity. Learn about our editorial process Updated on March 27, 2023 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Steven Gans, MD Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight Care and Trigger Warning This is a story about intimate partner violence. Some details in this piece may be disturbing to readers, especially those who have experienced domestic abuse. If reading this brings up uncomfortable feelings for you about past abuse, or if you are currently in an abusive relationship, you can speak confidentially with trained advocates for free at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. I Tried It is a series that features accounts of real experiences with innovative new treatments, techniques, or practices that are making waves in the mental health world. Each installment in the series is unique to the writer's experience and may not be representative of the experiences or views of others. When I pitched an article a few months ago about the concept of post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), I had a sinking feeling I’d be using my piece as a reference point for my own life soon thereafter. That’s because my primary relationship had recently moved into a place that seemed potentially untenable for both of us and historically, my partner of many years had a tendency to lose their temper with me in stressful situations. I knew in my gut that no matter how calmly and/or rationally I behaved, chances were things would go badly. As someone who has experienced a significant amount of abuse in her past, I’d be left in a traumatized state that would be a difficult hole to crawl out of. The breakup went even worse than I feared. In their anger, my ex had a long fit of rage at me. I was called a litany of names, told that being a cis gay woman was “pathetic” and “disgusting,” and was informed that they never wanted to see or speak to me again. Four and a half years of my lifewere down the drain in an hour, and afterward, I was a disaster. Four and a half years of my life were down the drain in an hour, and afterward, I was a disaster. My body’s response to being abused, whether verbally, emotionally, or physically, is to shut down. I stopped being able to eat, barely clocked three hours of sleep a night, and by the end of that week, had ceased to be able to work. While I was able to cook for my private chef client because cooking is pure instinct, my writing deadlines were piling up, and I found myself spending hours daily staring at a blank computer screen. Newly responsible alone for a costly home, I didn’t have the time to be a mess. Something had to give. I was trying everything in my arsenal, from meditation to breathwork to journaling, and nothing was helping. I decided to go a different route: I’d recently written about vagus nerve exercises, and outside of the things we do unwittingly that stimulate our vagus nerve, such as singing in thecar, I had never tried them. Wanting to be guided by something simple and soothing, I headed to YouTube. With barely a moment of searching, I found a video for a set of ear massages that purported to stimulate the vagus nerve. It took scarcely 15 minutes to complete and seemed far too subtle to be potentially impactful (most studies of auricular vagus nerve stimulation involves stimulation via electrodes). At the end of the massage series, I felt queasy. That feeling remained for about an hour while I sat on the couch and breathed through it. Suddenly, the queasiness abated, and I felt as if I had dropped back into my body. Out of the blue, I thought, “I’m fine. I’m going to be fine. I have survived this, just like I have survived everything else in my life, and none of it has broken me. I am stronger than this.” Out of the blue, I thought, 'I’m fine. I’m going to be fine. I have survived this, just like I have survived everything else in my life, and none of it has broken me. I am stronger than this.' I got up off the couch a new person. It was a Sunday, and I decided to dedicate the day to taking care of myself in whatever way felt best. That night I slept for about five hours, which was better than any day prior, and the next morning I headed to my computer eagerly. I submitted the two articles due that day before noon and worked on others with deadlines later that week. My close friends had all been doing an excellent job of checking in on me regularly, and all were equally taken aback that Monday when they asked how I was doing. “So much better!” I replied. “I did this vagus nerve ear massage thing, and it somehow FIXED my nervous system. I’m going to be OK!” I told them. Floored by how well the ear massages had worked, I geared up to try something else I’d researched for vagus nerve stimulation: cold plunging. I began the next day by standing under cold water in the shower (after a normal warm shower) for as long as I could—which was about 10 seconds. The next day I lasted longer; the day after that, longer still. By Friday, I could count to 100 under icy water, and on Saturday, I made my first ice bath in my tub. I end each shower and bath on that cold note to allow my body to perform the reparative process of reheating itself. The fact that I, someone whose heat is set to 74, am able to do this is a testament to how amazing it makes you feel. It's been about a month and a half since I began cold plunging, and my record for a cold shower now is a count of 270, which translates to about four minutes, considering I’m not counting slowly. Ice baths top out at three minutes or so, and I do them once a week. Every few days, I add in one of the ear massages. Not only did vagus nerve exercises save me from my PTRS, I feel the best I ever have. When researching ice baths, the attribute that surprised me the most was that people said it made them feel invincible. Stress resilience is a purported effect of them, but the idea of urging the world to "come at me, bro" is pretty much the opposite of my quiet and introverted personality. And yet, that’s exactly how cold plunging makes me feel. It gives me the understanding that whatever happens to me in life, I’ll be OK. I feel ready and excited about it all. Stress resilience is a purported effect of them, but the idea of urging the world to 'come at me, bro' is pretty much the opposite of my quiet and introverted personality. I have worked so, so hard to be someone who does not attract abusers. While this past relationship involved someone occasionally losing their temper with me, it was still a win in comparison to my history. I’ve put in nearly five years of time with somatic therapy, and I believe I’m as recovered as I’m going to get in this life. I simply can’t become someone who didn’t go through all that I have, and I might always find it challenging to be treated well by those I’m intimate with. Treating myself well is the best way to get accustomed to that feeling, and caring for my nervous system is the most straightforward way to be kind to myself. Vagus nerve exercises give me the ability to calm my nervous system on a deeper level, and in a faster way, than anything else I’ve found—and you can bet that if it’s out there and can potentially heal you on a deep level, I’ve tried it. If you’d told me I’d be doing this well, and feeling this fabulous, not even a couple of months after a traumatic breakup, I’d have told you that you were dreaming. Yet here I am, the happiest and the most relaxed version of myself I’ve known. Being someone who gets to learn and tell others about ways to enhance our mental health makes me feel like the luckiest person around. 2 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. Kaniusas E, Kampusch S, Tittgemeyer M, Panetsos F, Gines RF, Papa M, et al. Current directions in the auricular vagus nerve stimulation i – a physiological perspective. Front Neurosci. 2019 Aug 9;13:854. Jungmann M, Vencatachellum S, Van Ryckeghem D, Vögele C. Effects of cold stimulation on cardiac-vagal activation in healthy participants: randomized controlled trial. JMIR Form Res. 2018 Oct 9;2(2):e10257. By Ariane Resnick, CNC Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity. 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