I Tried Vagus Nerve Massage to Feel Less Tired & Sleep Better. Here's What Happened

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Vagus Nerve Massage: woman touching neck in bathroom
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Today’s rapid-fire insistence on communication, consumption and overall performance can turn a person into a nervous wreck—and a tired one at that. So when I started tracking references to the vagus nerve massage—here a TikTok, there a New York Times story and finally a day spa treatment at an upscale mall, I had to give myself the gift of relaxation with and try a vagus nerve massage. Little did I know this was not one-and-done treatment that would give me an afternoon’s relief like a hot stone massage, but instead an attempt to wholly re-wire my nervous system with regular at-home self-care practices. It sounds woo-woo, so before you have a chance to roll your eyes, let’s look at the science.

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Meet the Experts

  • Dave Rabin, MD., PhD. is a board-certified psychiatrist, neuroscientist and co-founder of Apollo Neuroscience. A health tech entrepreneur and inventor, Dr. Dave, as he’s known, has been studying the impact of chronic stress in humans for over 15 years.
  • Melissa West is a Ph.D. and yoga instructor who has a restorative yoga YouTube series, Yoga with Melissa. She is also the author of Five Element Yin Yoga: Practicing and Teaching in Harmony with the Seasons.

Where Is the Vagus Nerve and What Does It Do?

The vagus nerve is one of 12 pairs of cranial nerves that send electrical impulses between your brain and the rest of your body. Cranial nerve 10, aka the vagus nerve, is the longest pair of the bunch, each nerve running down opposite sides of the body from the brain stem through the neck, heart, lungs and abdomen, to the gut. “Activity in the vagus nerve decreases heart rate, breath rate and blood pressure, and helps to deliver resources to the parts of our bodies that need to be active when we’re recovering, especially recovering from stress and sleeping,” says Dr. Rabin. In the book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, clinical bodyworker Stanley Rosenberg writes that during years of using the vagus nerve manipulation and its framework, called polyvagal theory—the idea that the autonomic nervous system not only regulates major involuntary organs like the stomach and lungs but also our emotional states—he’s successfully treated clients suffering from migraines, anxiety attacks, PTSD and ADHD.

How Can Stimulating the Vagus Nerve Improve Your Well-Being?

You know that feeling of connection and calm that sometimes comes when you’re singing, humming or chanting? According to West, that feeling stems from how these activities stimulate the part of the vagus nerve that runs through the throat. She sees three-fold benefits:

  • Physical: “When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate is lower and your body is able to go into rest and digest mode, which is supportive for healing.”
  • Mental: “Vagus nerve massage counteracts the ‘fight or flight’ response of the sympathetic nervous system, so your mind is more focused, clear and relaxed.
  • Emotional: “It has a soothing effect on your emotions, so you will feel a sense of emotional balance.”

How I Tested Vagus Nerve Massage

A chance at feeling more rested, less panicky and more emotionally balanced? Put me in, coach! And by that I mean, it turns out that, similar to how a physical fitness regimen tones and trains your body, a regular vagus nerve massage practice is what’s most effective in toning your vagus nerve. While some modalities, such as the low vibrations of Dr. Rabin’s Apollo wearable device and the Sensate, can be worn all day (the Apollo can even be clipped onto garments and set to go off while you sleep), I didn’t go that route. Instead, I mixed up my practice by helping myself to a combo platter of modalities. I rubbed the light herbal Osea Vagus Nerve Oil into my hands, took a deep inhale of the olive-juniper-rosemary aroma then rubbed it in circular motion along both sides of my neck and behind my earlobes…and I was able to stay sharp during my midday slump. Instead of being anxiety ridden and sleepless, I nestled my Sensate device on my chest, and concentrated on its watery hum and purring vibrations, drifting off after ten minutes. And I used West’s at-home vagus nerve massage: Shake your hands to release tension, rub them together, then cradle them over the belly while you breathe into and out of your belly. Then three sets of nine strokes: palm over palm downward on your neck, palm over palm downward to your heart center, then circular, open-palm massage from your right hip bone, up to your right lower rib, over to your left lower rib then down to your left hip bone and finally to your starting point, the right hip bone. (This was especially relaxing after a hot bath laced with herbal Osea Vagus Nerve Bath Oil.

My Takeaway After a Month of Vagus Nerve Massage

I’m hooked! To elaborate, I’ve become a bit addicted to the few minutes of self-soothing this practice has taught me, since I now think of my oil, buzzy relaxation device or even the circular belly rub when I get stressed out due to an emotional conflict, work-life pressure or scheduling conflict. Whereas I used to go straight to anxiety and even panic, spiraling into a pretty fast nervous fatigue, now I hear an internal voice that leads me to take deep breaths, sit down and take a few moments to rub my neck or behind my ears in order to reset. I also fall asleep faster. The props really helped at first, as did understanding how the vagus nerve is an actual physical feature that can be manipulated without having to book a special massage appointment or chiropractor adjustment (although I’m totally down for squeezing those in when I can). Now that I’m practicing my self-massage, I feel calmer, less full of fear that I will be stuck in stress spirals and more confident in sustaining a viable energy level. This is after only a month, so I’m looking forward to seeing where my vagus nerve can take me. Satori, here I come.

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Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space. Suitcases to sex toys, she's got an opinion on what's best. Dana is based in Los Angeles; her work has also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue and The New York Times. Check her out on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...