What is the vagus nerve? And how does it help us feel the wellbeing benefits of movement?


March 29, 2024
This blog often covers topics around the wellbeing benefits of movement and creativity with others, helping to reduce anxiety, depression, and even improve our immune system. Today, join me on a journey into our anatomy and physiology to find out more about why we enjoy such benefits.

There are many strands of research into why creativity and movement can be beneficial to our wellbeing. However, more recently in my own research I have been interested in one very particular part of our anatomy, a part that I’d like to explore a bit deeper today. It’s called the vagus nerve.

‘Vagus’ is the Latin word for ‘wander’, and this nerve is the longest nerve in the whole of the human body. It’s a cranial nerve, which means it doesn’t run through our spinal cord, but instead connects the brain straight to many vital areas of the body such as the ears, throat, heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It also passes through the vocal cords and the diaphragm. I like to think of it as a vine cascading through the body, with many different stems reaching out across our whole anatomy. 

The vagus nerve is a component of our autonomic nervous system, that is, the part of our nervous system that handles unconscious processes such as our digestion, heartbeat, immune system and breathing. It’s an important part of this complex network of cranial and spinal nerves. The amount of information it carries is astounding: the only other tissue structure that has more nerve cells to carry information to the brain is the spinal cord itself. 

Our vagus nerve is an information highway that connects our brains to our guts and it helps create those feelings of ‘gut instinct’ or ‘butterflies’ when you’re feeling nervous, accompanied by sweaty palms or a faster heart rate. This is a natural response to stress, and it’s helped to keep us safe throughout our evolution as a species. 

However, in our busy, information filled, and often stressful world, our stress response, or ‘fight or flight’, can be triggered frequently and often at times when there is actually no immediate threat to our survival.  We might feel it when we open our emails to a full inbox, when our phone rings, or when scrolling through social media. It can start to affect our day to day life, and we might find it difficult to rest and relax. 

But here’s the fascinating part. The vagus nerve carries information to and from the brain. But it actually carries information to the brain much much more than it carries it away. In fact, 90 % of the nerve impulses carried by the vagus nerve are sensory information from the gut to the brain. 

So even when our brain might struggle to comprehend that we are in a place where we can stop and unwind, we can use the vagus nerve itself to relay that information to it. A kind of sensory messenger, when we’re finding it difficult to calm ourselves through the mind alone. 

But how?

The key is to gently, and comfortably stimulate the vagus nerve. This can be done in a number of easy to access and surprisingly simple ways…

The first is breathing. Remember that the vagus nerve passes through the diaphragm. So deep, mindful breaths can help stimulate the vagus nerve and restore a sense of calm. 

Breathing can be done on its own, or it’s often part of a meditation or movement practice. Yoga very famously embeds conscious breathing into movement, and much of the movement activities we facilitate at Curious Motion are led with the breath…

Reach up and breathe in… curve down and breathe out…

Even without diaphragmatic breathing, dance is a researched way of stimulating the vagus nerve. The nerve travels such a long way across our torso and into our head, and it’s involved in the maintenance of posture and balance. So gently curving, twisting, reaching, bending and stretching, all of the wonderful movements that feel so good when we dance, are gently stimulating the vagus nerve and helping us restore balance. 

Singing and laughing can also help stimulate the vagus nerve, as it passes through the vocal cords, and some vagus nerve exercises even involve moving just the eyes, as they’re yet another area that the vagus nerve connects to the brain.

So, as you finish reading this, you might like to take a few mindful breaths, breathing deeply, in through the nose, and out through the mouth, if that’s comfortable for you. Maybe observe how you feel. Perhaps a little calmer, more settled. And perhaps take a moment to appreciate the weird and wonderful properties of the humble vagus nerve.








‘In an unspoken voice’ by Peter Levine


Isla Hurst

Questions in Motion Author

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