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Vagal Toning for Anxiety and Stress Relief

A diagram of the autonomic nervous system, showing the vagus nerve running from the brainstem
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Do you often find yourself struggling with anxiety and stress, searching for ways to calm your mind and body? What if we told you there’s a secret weapon already within you that has the power to alleviate anxiety, improve mental health, and enhance overall well-being?

That secret weapon is your vagus nerve, and in this blog post, we’ll explore the concept of vagal toning, its role in stress and anxiety relief, and practical methods you can incorporate into your daily routine.

Discover how nutrition and lifestyle choices can influence your vagal tone, and explore the different devices and therapies available for vagus nerve stimulation. So, if you’re looking for natural and accessible ways to calm your mind and body, read on to discover the wonders of vagal toning

Understanding Vagal Toning and Its Connection to Anxiety

a brain with neurons firing representing vagus nerve stimulation for anxiety in san francisco

The vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in your body, plays a crucial role in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates essential functions such as heart rate, digestion, and the body’s response to stress.

The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your inner organs like your gut, liver, heart, and lungs, carrying vital information between them.

But how exactly does the vagus nerve connect to anxiety? When stimulated, the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your body relax and recover from stress.

This relaxation response can alleviate anxiety symptoms and promote overall well-being. Improving vagal tone – the ability of the vagus nerve to regulate the heartbeat and other functions – can help you not only reduce anxiety but also improve stress resilience and mindfulness.

The Link Between Vagal Toning and Stress Relief

Studies have shown that vagal toning techniques can significantly reduce stress and anxiety levels by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” response.

Stimulating the vagus nerve can effectively counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. Through vagal toning, we develop a state of relaxation, calmness, and improved emotional well-being.

To effectively activate your vagus nerve, you must first understand how it functions within the autonomic nervous system and the importance of maintaining healthy vagal tone. Vagal tone refers to the activity level of the vagus nerve, which influences our overall stability, emotional balance, and resilience to stress.

Higher vagal tone indicates a healthier and more adaptive stress response, while lower vagal tone is associated with increased stress and anxiety. In the following sections, we’ll delve deeper into these concepts and explore various techniques for vagal toning and anxiety reduction.

The Vagus Nerve and the Autonomic Nervous System

As part of the autonomic nervous system, the vagus nerve helps regulate various internal organ functions and stress responses. It controls:

  • digestion
  • heart rate
  • glandular secretion
  • supplies nerves to the muscles responsible for swallowing and speaking

One way to measure the effect of the vagus nerve on the heart is by looking at heart rate variability – the changes in heart rate as you breathe in and out.

When you’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system reduces blood flow to the gut and increases it to the heart and muscles. In contrast, the parasympathetic system – which the vagus nerve is a part of – increases bowel motility and glandular secretion.

In other words, the vagus nerve is responsible for that all-too familiar feeling of having butterflies in your stomach when you’re stressed.

The vagus nerve’s influence doesn’t stop there. It also plays a role in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which helps the body respond to stress, and in the immune system.

The HPA axis is activated by environmental factors and proinflammatory cytokines, leading to the release of cortisol – one of the stress hormones – from the adrenal glands. Because of its involvement in the HPA axis, the vagus nerve is closely linked to both psychiatric and inflammatory disorders.

The Importance of Vagal Tone

Maintaining a healthy vagal tone is essential for emotional regulation, stress resilience, and overall mental health. Vagal tone refers to the vagus nerve’s ability to control the heartbeat, and it can even influence the perception of chronic pain. Balancing your vagal tone can help you manage your emotions and feel more resilient during moments of trigger and stress.

In addition to its impact on emotional regulation, a healthy vagal tone can also help regulate blood vessels and influence other aspects of your health, such as your appetite and weight. One way to achieve and maintain healthy vagal tone is through various techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve, such as deep breathing exercises, humming, gargling, and cold exposure therapy.

Understanding the importance of vagal tone is the first step toward practicing skills that activate your vagus nerve and improve your mental health. In the next section, we’ll discuss several techniques that can help you stimulate your vagus nerve and boost your vagal tone, ultimately reducing anxiety and enhancing your emotional and mental balance.

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Techniques for Vagal Toning and Anxiety Reduction

A person doing deep breathing exercises to reduce anxietyNow that we’ve explored the connection between the vagus nerve and anxiety, let’s dive into the techniques that can help you improve your vagal tone and reduce anxiety.

These techniques work by stimulating the vagus nerve, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response. By engaging in these practices, you can alleviate anxiety, improve mental health, and enhance overall well-being.

Some of the most effective techniques for vagal toning and anxiety reduction include:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Singing, humming, and chanting
  • Cold exposure therapy
  • Physical touch

Each of these practices offers a unique way to activate the vagus nerve, helping you relax, de-stress, and find relief from anxiety.

In the following subsections, we’ll take a closer look at each of these techniques, explaining how they stimulate the vagus nerve and the potential benefits they provide in reducing anxiety and improving mental health.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises are effective ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulate the vagus nerve, leading to reduced stress and anxiety levels, as well as lower blood pressure.

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and enhances vagal tone. It involves taking slow, deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. This controlled, slow breathing activates the vagus nerve and triggers your body’s relaxation response, helping you feel calmer and more at ease.

One popular deep breathing technique is the 4-7-8 method, created by Dr. Andrew Weil and based on ancient pranayama tradition. This technique involves exhaling for twice as long as you inhale, promoting relaxation and focus. The 4-7-8 method has been shown to help with pain during childbirth, post-surgery recovery, reducing tension, and enhancing concentration during creative activities.

To practice the 4-7-8 technique, follow these steps:

  1. Inhale for a count of 4.
  2. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  3. Exhale for a count of 8.
  4. Repeat this process for four rounds, gradually increasing the number of rounds as you become more comfortable with the technique.

By incorporating deep breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method into your daily routine, you can stimulate your vagus nerve, improve vagal tone, and reduce anxiety.

Singing, Humming, and Chanting

people singing together to improve vagal tone

Singing, humming, gargling, and chanting are effective techniques for stimulating the vagus nerve and promoting relaxation and stress relief. These practices engage the vocal cords, which in turn activate the vagus nerve, helping you relax and de-stress. Music has long been known for its calming effects on the nervous system, and engaging in vocal activities such as singing, humming, and chanting can amplify these benefits.

Engaging in singing, humming, or chanting activities has been found to increase vagal tone and promote relaxation. Whether it’s joining a choir, singing along to your favorite songs, or practicing mantras and affirmations, vocal exercises can stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the relaxation response.

Research has even shown that just 13 minutes of listening to music can significantly reduce stress and anxiety levels. Incorporating singing, humming, or chanting into your daily routine or engaging in group singing activities such as choir, kirtan, or karaoke can provide an enjoyable and effective way to stimulate your vagus nerve, improve vagal tone, and reduce anxiety.

Shaking, Trembling, and Tremoring  

Shaking or “vagal maneuvers” can stimulate the vagus nerve and enhance vagal tone. When it comes to shaking, certain movements like deep, slow belly breathing or rapid lateral eye movements are thought to engage the vagus nerve, resulting in a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and a feeling of calm.

Shaking or tremoring, as a form of stress release, is a phenomenon observed across many species in the animal kingdom. This is typically seen after an animal has experienced a stressful or life-threatening event, and it appears to assist in returning the body to a state of homeostasis.

Animals, from ducks to dogs, naturally shake to release tension, suggesting that shaking could be a natural mechanism to recover from stress. Drawing from this notion, certain therapeutic practices for humans have been developed that incorporate shaking or trembling to help reduce tension, stress, and trauma.

One such practice is Tension & Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), a series of exercises designed to encourage a self-induced therapeutic tremor. The tremor begins in the legs and often spreads throughout the body, providing a sense of calm and relaxation. This form of shaking is believed to aid in the release of deep muscular patterns of stress and tension, potentially contributing to vagal toning indirectly.

Qigong, a Chinese health and spiritual practice, also employs shaking as a stress release method. Qigong shaking involves shaking the body to facilitate the release of stress and tension. It can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, enhance relaxation, and reduce stress levels.

Bioenergetic exercises involve shaking and vibrating certain body parts to liberate emotional and physical tension. This method helps restore vitality and liveliness, contributing to mental and emotional equanimity.

Cold Exposure Therapy

Cold exposure therapy, which involves exposing yourself to cold temperatures, can stimulate the vagus nerve and trigger the relaxation response. Brief exposure to cold water or cold showers has been shown to increase vagal tone. Activating the vagus nerve through cold exposure therapy can help reduce anxiety and improve mood.

Some ways to incorporate cold exposure therapy into your routine include taking cold showers or ice baths, swimming in cold water, or using an ice pack on your face. You can start by incorporating short bursts of cold water at the end of your regular shower or consider cold water immersion techniques such as cold baths or dips in natural bodies of water. Regularly engaging in cold exposure therapy, can help you improve your vagal tone, reduce anxiety, and enhance overall mental health.

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Physical Touch and Massage

hand on heart vagus nerve stimulation

Physical touch and massage can provide a comforting and soothing experience while also activating the vagus nerve. Touch has a powerful impact on our nervous system, helping us feel better, concentrate more effectively, and even cope with pain more easily.

These therapeutic practices have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone. Regular massages, particularly techniques that focus on the neck, face, and chest, can help relax the body and activate the parasympathetic response.

Acupuncture, with its targeted stimulation of specific points along the body’s meridians, can also enhance vagal tone. Incorporating physical touch and massage into your self-care routine can stimulate your vagus nerve, improve vagal tone, and reduce anxiety. Here are some ways to incorporate physical touch into your self-care routine.

  • Schedule regular massages
  • Engage in activities that involve physical touch, such as hugging loved ones or cuddling with a pet
  • Practice self-massage techniques, such as using a foam roller or massaging your own hands and feet
  • Regularly put your hand on your heart or area of emotional discomfort

The Role of Nutrition and Lifestyle in Vagal Toning

A person taking probiotics to improve gut healthBeyond the specific techniques for vagal tone and anxiety reduction, nutrition and lifestyle choices can also play a significant role in maintaining healthy vagal tone and improving mental health.

A well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and effective stress management techniques all contribute to better vagal tone. In the following subsections, we’ll explore the connections between:

  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Stress management
  • Vagal toning

We’ll provide practical tips and suggestions for incorporating these elements into your daily routine.

Probiotics and Gut Health

Probiotics, the live bacteria and yeast that are beneficial for your body, play an essential role in maintaining gut health and influencing vagus nerve activity. A healthy gut can help alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms, making probiotics an important component of overall mental health.

To incorporate probiotics into your diet, consider consuming foods rich in these beneficial bacteria, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, or taking probiotic supplements. Prioritizing gut health and incorporating probiotics into your routine can support healthy vagus nerve activity, reduce anxiety, and increase a sense of serenity.

Exercise and Movement

Regular exercise and movement are not only essential for physical health, but also for stimulating the vagus nerve and improving mental health. Engaging in regular physical activity can help release “feel-good” hormones, leading to reduced stress and anxiety levels and improved mood.

Whether it’s walking, jogging, swimming, yoga, or any other form of exercise that you enjoy, incorporating regular movement into your daily routine can stimulate the vagus nerve and enhance vagal tone.

Stress Management Techniques

Practicing stress management techniques, such as meditation and yoga, can play a crucial role in maintaining healthy vagal tone and reducing anxiety. These practices can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a relaxation response and improved mental health.

Incorporating stress management techniques into your daily routine can enhance your ability to manage stress, increase your vagal tone, and ultimately reduce anxiety. Some effective techniques include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Stretching
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Integrating Vagal Toning into Self-Care Routine

To get the full benefits of vagal toning, it’s necessary to make these techniques a part of your daily routine. Incorporating deep breathing exercises into your morning routine or practicing mindful meditation before bed can set the tone for a calm and centered day.

Engaging in social activities, scheduling regular exercise sessions, and prioritizing activities that bring you joy will help you maintain and enhance vagal tone over time. Consistency is key in developing the long-term benefits of vagal toning.

Vagal Toning for Enhancing Connection

Stimulating the vagus nerve not only promotes relaxation and reduces stress, but it can also enrich our connection with ourselves and others. The vagus nerve is intricately involved in regulating social engagement and forming meaningful connections. It can help you feel safer in your body and with others.

When the vagus nerve is activated through techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or engaging in joyful activities, it can enhance our ability to be present, attuned, and empathic in our interactions.

Developing a healthy vagal tone increases attunement to our own emotions and needs, allowing us to express ourselves authentically and connect with others on a deeper level. This increased connection with ourselves and others fosters empathy, compassion, and a sense of belonging, leading to more fulfilling relationships and a greater overall sense of well-being.

Vagal Toning for Long-Term Well-being

While vagal toning techniques may offer immediate stress and anxiety relief, their long-term benefits extend beyond simple relaxation. Consistently engaging in practices that promote vagal tone can improve your emotional equilibrium and cultivate resilience in the face of stressors.

The effects of vagal toning can positively impact various aspects of your life, including emotional regulation, cognitive function, immune system function, and cardiovascular health.

Activating the vagus nerve and developing higher vagal tone, can counteract the effects of stress and cultivate a state of relaxation and calmness. Through techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, social connections, exercise, and joyful activities, we can integrate vagal toning into our daily lives and experience the transformative effects. Small steps taken consistently can lead to significant changes in stress management and overall quality of life.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Devices and Therapies

An image of a Vagus Nerve Stimulation device used for vagal toning for anxiety therapy

For individuals seeking additional support in improving their mental health and reducing anxiety, there are various vagus nerve stimulation devices and therapies available.

These treatments, both invasive and non-invasive, can be used to treat neurological conditions and improve mental health by stimulating the vagus nerve.

In the following subsections, we’ll explore invasive and non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation devices and therapies, discussing their potential benefits for individuals seeking to enhance their mental health and reduce anxiety.

Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Invasive vagus nerve stimulation (iVNS) involves implanting a small pulse generator in the chest, which delivers electrical impulses to the vagus nerve. This form of treatment has been used to address treatment-resistant depression and other conditions, providing potential relief for individuals who have not responded to traditional therapies.

While iVNS can offer benefits for some individuals, it’s important to consider the invasiveness of this treatment and potential risks associated with surgery. If you are considering iVNS, consult with a healthcare professional to determine if this option is suitable for your specific needs and circumstances.

Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS) offers a less invasive alternative for individuals seeking to improve their mental health and reduce anxiety. Techniques such as transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) deliver electrical impulses to the vagus nerve through the skin, providing a non-surgical option for treating conditions such as cluster headaches, migraines, and epilepsy.

For those interested in non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation, consult with a healthcare professional to determine if this treatment option is appropriate for your specific needs and explore available devices and therapies.


Seeking professional help for anxiety often involves understanding the connection between the vagus nerve, vagal toning, and anxiety reduction. If you’re searching for a Bay Area therapist and want a top-notch therapist in the Bay Area, our Center is an ideal choice, especially for those seeking comprehensive therapy in San Francisco.

The Bay Area CBT Center

The Bay Area CBT Center not only offers individual therapy but also specializes in CBT group therapy, workshops, and retreats, providing a range of options to suit different needs and preferences. Our Bay Area therapists are skilled in various techniques, including vagus nerve stimulation and vagal toning. These methods are integrated into both our in-person and online therapy San Francisco services. The group therapy workshops and retreats we offer are particularly beneficial for those looking to explore CBT in a supportive, group setting, allowing for shared experiences and collective growth.

At The Bay Area CBT Center, led by a renowned psychologist in San Francisco, CA, we integrate this knowledge into our therapy, including in-person and online couples counseling, to help individuals and couples manage anxiety effectively. We understand the importance of finding the right therapeutic fit. We are committed to providing the best therapy in the Bay Area, including specialized group sessions, workshops, and retreats, ensures that you receive the most effective and supportive care for your journey towards better mental health and well-being.

Our mental health therapists in San Francisco offer guidance in these areas, providing a comprehensive approach to anxiety management. Whether through specific vagal toning techniques, nutrition and lifestyle adjustments, or exploring vagus nerve stimulation devices and therapies, our team of specialized Bay Area therapists is equipped to support your journey towards a calmer, more resilient life. Embrace the potential of your vagus nerve with our specialized anxiety therapy in San Francisco, and unlock a new path toward improved mental health and well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

Evidence-based therapy involves interventions that are scientifically proven to be effective for particular issues. In this approach, a strong partnership based on trust and collaboration is formed between you and your therapist. Within this supportive and unbiased environment, you can freely express yourself without fear of judgment. Over a series of sessions, you and your therapist will work together to address obstacles and set goals aimed at personal growth and fulfillment. This method ensures that the techniques and strategies used are not only supportive but also empirically validated to help you achieve your therapeutic goals.

The Bay Area CBT Center provides therapy services for everyone, from children to adults, and welcomes individuals, couples, and groups. We help with various concerns like anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and behavior challenges. We value diversity and cultural differences, offering personalized and culturally sensitive care to each client.

Studies show that the bond between you and your therapist, known as the therapeutic alliance, is a key factor in treatment success. This alliance is characterized by the strength of your relationship and how well you both agree on treatment goals. Research indicates that individuals with a solid therapeutic alliance experience better treatment outcomes including greater productivity at work, more satisfying relationships, improved stress management, and decreased engagement in risky behaviors.

You can expect a 15-30 minute phone call with our care coordinator, who is extensively trained in ensuring the perfect match for you. During this conversation, our matching expert will collaborate with you to understand your therapy needs, preferences, and scheduling availability. This discussion builds upon the information you provided during sign-up and offers an opportunity for you to address any personal questions or concerns you may have about therapy or our services at The Bay Area CBT Center. Following your conversation, we’ll pair you with the therapist who best aligns with your needs, goals, and preferences.

At your matching appointment, we will match you with a therapist specifically chosen for you and schedule your first session. Depending on your availability, you can expect to meet your therapist anywhere from one day to a week after this appointment.

Our approach to therapy includes a flexible hybrid model, blending both online and face-to-face sessions. This option is perfect for clients situated close to our clinics in the Bay Area who prefer the flexibility of choosing between virtual consultations or meeting their therapist in person. Our aim with hybrid care is to ensure every client is matched with the ideal therapist and therapy environment, be it from the convenience of your own home or in one of our clinics.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we accept PPO insurance plans that allow you to use out-of-network providers. This means if your insurance plan is a PPO and it includes mental health benefits, you could get back some or all of the money you pay for our services, depending on what your insurance company allows. When you see one of our therapists, they’ll give you a superbill. You can send this superbill to your insurance company to ask for reimbursement. If you’re not sure if your insurance covers services from providers not in their network, it’s a good idea to give them a call and check.

You may be eligible to have 60-80% of your costs covered by out-of-network benefits.

Also, if you have an FSA (Flexible Spending Account), you can usually use it to pay for individual counseling sessions. It’s wise to double-check with your FSA provider or talk to your accountant to make sure that counseling sessions are considered an allowed expense.

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