psychology of the vagus nerve

Psychology of the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts in the brainstem and extends all the way down into the abdomen. It has branches in the ears, throat, heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The nerve monitors and receives information about how internal organs are functioning, including the heart and lungs.

The vagus nerve is the mind-body highway. The nerve, along with its many branches, works to promote and restore heal and balance. It can diminish the physiological unease that promotes anxiety, panic, and other negative mental states.


Functions of the vagus nerve

Have you ever wondered why your stomach tenses up in knots and your heartbeat races when you sense a threat? What about why your body relaxes and you feel calmer when entering a friend or relative’s home? The key player here is the vagus nerve. It manages the autonomic nervous system and controls your internal organs. The nerve is also a major pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system, along with the sympathetic nervous system, controls the autonomic nervous system.

Usually, the two work together to create and maintain homeostasis. An imbalance between them can cause all sorts of physical disorders as well as strong psychological impacts.


How the vagus nerve impacts psychological health

The vagus nerve transmits information to the brain and enables a state of neural calm. It also connects the brain with many of the body’s major organ systems. It connects mental and physical processes. Because of the vagus nerve, the mind and body are connected, and what affects one directly affects the other.

The vagus nerve counteracts the sympathetic nerves. It promotes a positive state of homeostasis and promotes calm. It down-regulates stress response and curbs a state of alarm and anxiety by letting the body know that it’s safe.

Though rarely recognized, disturbed physiology puts a person in a constant fight or flight state. This increases the risk of various psychiatric disorders and requires heavy lifting from the nerve to maintain overall health.

The nerve is a powerful moderator of mood and stress response. Physiological turmoil caused by an agitated state can lead to:

  • Worry and unease
  • Never-ending feelings of impending doom
  • Negative thoughts and feelings of oneself (ie. low self-esteem and inadequacy)
  • Feelings of not being in control

Those with imbalanced sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and even panic disorders.

Final thoughts

In response to threats and risks, it’s normal for the body to enter fight or flight mode. However, once something is no longer perceived to be a threat, the vagus nerve works to calm and put the body at ease.

Physiological imbalance can cause the nerve to be less impactful, which leaves the body in a constant state of stress and worry. Stimulating the vagus nerve is a treatment for many mental health issues, including treatment resistant depression.