What Happens in Vagus…

If you read this blog often, you know that performing acts of kindness is good for your own health. Ever wonder how that works, exactly? I’d like to think that when you do a good deed, the karma fairy throws a little extra lucky dust your way. The truth is… well, a little bit like that.

Research shows that when we have positive social connections with other people, it improves the functioning of our vagus nerve, which in turn regulates heart rate. (Yep, that’s the same nerve that also sends you running to the bathroom when you’re tense before a client presentation. But we’re going to stick with the heart rate thing.)

So a psychologist at the University of North Carolina thought it would be neat to find out if people could boost their vagal nerve function by, um, imagining they’re being nice to other people. Yes, really. Instead of actually going out and performing good deeds, they sat at home and practised a loving-kindness meditation in which they mentally brewed up feelings of compassion and goodwill aimed at themselves and others. Two months later, those who’d begun the study with high vagal function (it’s known as “vagal tone,” and is not to be confused with abs) showed an increase in positive feelings.

Then it gets better. That spike in happiness was associated with even more social connections. And that led to an even better vagal tone. The researchers call this an “upward spiral.”

And it’s the kind of research I just love. (Kind, get it?)

Honey, you may have good vagal tone, but now you’re just being a show-off. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIN / FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET

Honey, you may have good vagal tone, but now you’re just being a show-off.
(Photo courtesy of Marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

4 responses to “What Happens in Vagus…

  1. This stuff can get boiled down to the too-sweet, but it is true that doing good for others, and thinking positive thoughts has its healthy rewards. Thanks for reminding us of this.

  2. Yes, I find it hard to say “loving-kindness” with a straight face – but it’s nice to know the biology behind the benefits!

  3. I took a seminar from a researcher who teaches vagus nerve exercises. He says relaxing the nerve can help people with PTSD and other anxiety disorders to calm their overstimulated nervous systems. Thanks for the post. I always enjoy your blog.

  4. Thanks, Peggy! I do think there’s a lot that “happens in vagus.” Worth exploring.

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