The vagus nerve helps to regulate heart rate and is also a key player in our social engagement systems. Long before modern-day researchers were studying the science of human emotion and loving-kindness as being linked to the vagus nerve, scientists were interested in how vagal tone affected the physiology of the heart. When you inhale, heart rate speeds up a bit and when you exhale, the release of acetylcholine—which was originally referred to as vagusstoff (German for “vagus substance”)—slows your heart rate down and prepares your body to “rest-and-digest.” A healthy heart is also marked by a high rate of variability (HRV) as you breathe in and out.
“Anxiety, stress, and rage are contagious. These toxic emotions can spark a sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response that spreads like wildfire within your own nervous system and can create a ripple effect of anger and negativity all around you. On the flip side, consciously self-generating positive emotions and kind-heartedness creates a feeling of being safe and sound via the vagus nerve and healthier vagal tone”
Fredrickson and Kok hypothesized that having a higher vagal tone might be part of an “upward spiral” that was part of a multi-directional feedback loop that could be accessed from various points of entry. Interestingly, they found people with higher vagal tone have better overall heart health, lower levels of inflammation, stronger social bonds, and tend to exhibit better emotion regulation.”
“When it comes to researching and “spreading the gospel” of the vagus nerve, Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a trailblazer and extraordinary spokesperson. Fredrickson recently discussed the role that the vagus nerve plays in creating “micro-moments” of heart-to-heart connectedness that improve vagal tone reciprocally when people are simpatico.”
– Excerpted from the article “Kindness Towards Oneself and Others Tones Your Vagus Nerve” in Psychology Today.