No one likes feeling stressed out. But what if you had a ‘calm-down’ channel running through your body that you could switch on when you need a dose of self-soothing?

That’s the idea behind vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), which means using certain simple, easy wellness practices to activate your vagus nerve. But before we discuss how to do it, here’s a quick primer on the vagus nerve.

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

“The vagus nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ response,” says Caroline Leaf, PhD, a clinical neuroscience and mental health researcher based in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Also called cranial nerve 10 (or cranial nerve X), the vagus nerve starts in a portion of your brain called the medulla and then branches down both sides of your throat, connecting with your tongue, heart, and digestive organs, according to StatPearls. In other words, it’s a communication channel that runs between your gut and brain.

Because it has such a wide reach, the vagus nerve “allows the main organs of the body to communicate,” says Dr. Leaf. “As such, it’s responsible for the way your body reacts to stress.”

When stimulated, your vagus nerve can move your body from a fight-or-flight state of stress to a rest-and-digest state of relaxation — and it’s both supportive and essential to overall health.

“Engaging the vagus nerve’s calming effects can help regulate the body’s stress response,” Leaf says. What’s more, research has shown that doing this regularly may help prevent and treat certain psychiatric disorders that involve stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

The wonderful thing about the vagus nerve is that although it’s located inside your body, it’s easy to activate on your own, quickly and for free. Here are seven DIY vagus nerve exercises to do just that.

How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

1. Let Yourself Have a Full-Body Laugh

Laughter makes you feel good, connects you with others, and is one of the best medicines for stress. “Laughter has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve,” says Leaf. But for this to work, you’ll need to encounter humorous situations that make you let out a big, out-loud guffaw – quietly chuckling in your head just won’t cut it. So, turn on a movie or comedian who cracks you up, schedule a night out with friends you always have a good time with, and send that LOL meme to a loved one so they can get the benefits too.

2. Meditate Daily, Even for a Few Minutes

One of the great things about meditation is that your only real job is to bring awareness to what is present, like your breathing, and calm your mind.

When a stressful thought pops into your head, you can simply acknowledge its presence, without judgement, and imagine it floating on by.

And while this awareness practice can help calm you down, the breathing changes that accompany meditation – namely, slow, deep breathing – also stimulate the vagus nerve to quell stress, according to one study. If meditation is intimidating or you don’t know where to start, you can start small. Try it for 1-5 minutes – whatever time you have available – and consider guided meditations on an app, like Headspace or Calm to direct your breath and focus.

3. Take a Handful of Deep Breaths

Even though deep breathing is a large component of meditation, you can use deep breathing outside of meditation, making it even more accessible. (You can do it anytime, anywhere, and you don’t need to close your eyes or clear your mind.) While there are many different types of breathwork – from box breathing to 4-7-8 breathing or lion’s breath – you can dabble in them all and practise the one that most resonates with you.

“Just make sure you’re taking deep belly breaths rather than shallow chest breaths,” says Carrie Howard, a certified clinical anxiety treatment provider in Gunter, Texas. And take the time to home in on what you need at the moment, she suggests. “Take several deep breaths until you start to feel the anxiety lessen; it’s more effective than saying you must do deep breathing for a certain amount of time, because response time will vary from person-to-person, and the intensity of your anxiety response will fluctuate in different situations as well,” says Howard.

Remember: This is about cultivating a practice that you can use again and again to soothe stress in the moment.

4. Hum Your Favorite Tune

Give a little hum right now. How good does that feel on the back of your throat? You might feel comforting vibrations there too.

“That vibration from the throat to the chest is the vagus nerve vibrating,” says Jennifer Anders, PsyD, of Yellowpine Therapy in Boulder, Colorado. “I find myself using this technique when I’m in a moment of acute discomfort or distress,” she explains.

“Humming really blunts the effects of the way I’m experiencing stress to help calm me down.”

What’s more, it’s been shown to have a physiological effect on the body, too. People with hypertension who used “bee humming breathing” (a yogic breath where you hum like a bee on the exhale for as long as possible) for five minutes benefited more from reduced blood pressure than a control group, according to one randomised controlled trial.

5. Splash Your Face With Cold Water

Tapping into the power of cold-water therapy is trendy – but there’s good reason to give it a shot, as it can stimulate your vagus nerve.

“Cold showers, a cold plunge in a bath, or immersing your face in ice cold water for several seconds also stimulates the vagus nerve,” says Howard.

But don’t feel like you have to try cold exposure if you don’t want to. “Not everyone’s body is fit for the cold,” says Dr. Anders.

“Cold is probably most helpful for people who lean more toward depression, but for someone already on edge and anxious, cold might not be the best thing.”

Think about it: When you have depression, you’re generally moving slower – physically and mentally. But with anxiety, you’re more amped up. That’s why a more activating activity like cold exposure might lift you up if you have depression, but may be too triggering if you’re dealing with anxiety. Pick the VNS practices that feel best to you.

6. Gargle Water in the Back of Your Throat

If you’re not into splashing cold water on your face when you’re stressed, try sipping some water to gargle instead.

“Gargling with water can activate the muscles in the back of the throat connected to the vagus nerve,” says Leaf. She recommends gargling for 30 seconds to one minute. Make sure you’re directing water to the back of your throat (without choking, of course) rather than keeping it up at the front of your mouth.

7. Massage Your Outer Ear

The outside of the ear contains a branch of the vagus nerve, called the Arnold’s or Alderman’s nerve, according to research. That makes vagus nerve massage something that you can do right now as you’re sitting at your computer or phone. There are various ways you can do it (with the help of videos on YouTube), but you’ll generally gently massage the inner part of your ear using slow circles, pull your ear, and massage the area behind and below your ear.

One study found that a head and neck massage also activated the body’s de-stressing response, possibly because it targeted the vagus nerve, though the authors note that massage tends to make people breathe in a deeper, more relaxed way, which could have the same benefits.

The Bottom Line

All these DIY practices are safe for most people, and free to do at home. Regular vagus nerve stimulation supports your overall health by engaging your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, or your “rest and digest” mode, to bring a sense of calm to your body and mind so you can better deal with stressful moments and improve your resilience against life’s challenges.