Picture the scene.
You're about to go into a high stakes meeting, conversation or presentation. You've done your prep, got your slide deck and are ready to blow your audience away.
You're feeling good...
Then, out of nowhere...
Your inner critic screams, "You're going to mess up!"
Your hands become clammy.
Your throat goes dry.
And your heart starts racing as if there's no tomorrow.
Before you know it, it's your turn to speak. But when you do, instead of sounding clear and resonant, your voice cracks and shakes, oozing fear and weakness instead of confidence and authority.
Hearing it makes you speed up ("You need to get out of here, fast"), causing you to stumble, mumble and lose track of what you were saying. Your audience looks irritated ("They think you're a fraud"), some exit the room, others get out their phones, leaving you wishing the floor would open and swallow you up.
Finally, the torment over, you escape, convinced "you're never going to be a good communicator" and determined to avoid any opportunity that will put you through the same humiliation again.
The 6th speaking secret
If you've worked with me, you'll know about the 5 Speaking Secrets TED speakers use to make their talks so engaging. But, let me share with you a 6th lesser-known secret that can make all the difference to your mindset and vocal delivery: The Vagus Nerve.
But what is it and how can we tap into its power?
Introducing your vagus nerve
The vagus nerve - also known as the "wandering nerve" due to its extensive network throughout our body - is the longest cranial nerve, stretching from the brainstem to various organs including the heart, lungs and digestive tract. It is responsible for regulating our parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and digest" system. It's counterpart is our sympathetic nervous system, which activates the "fight or flight" response in stressful situations.
Think of it as a seesaw, with the vagus nerve representing the "brake" and the sympathetic nervous system being the "accelerator". When one is activated, the other is deactivated. This is important because we need both systems to maintain balance in our body.
However, in today's fast-paced world where stress levels are constantly high, many of us spend more time on the "accelerator" and not enough on the "brake". This can lead to chronic stress, anxiety and burnout.
- The vagus nerve's influence on mindset
Research shows that the vagus nerve directly influences our mindset, stress response and emotional regulation. People with higher vagal tone - meaning their vagus nerve is functioning efficiently - tend to have better emotional regulation, lower stress levels and a more positive mindset overall. Conversely, those with lower vagal tone may struggle to stay calm and focused in high-pressure situations, leading to anxiety, panic attacks and difficulty controlling emotions.
Studies have also shown that vagus nerve stimulation can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder by increasing levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are responsible for regulating mood and emotions.
- The vagus nerve's influence on voice
The vagus nerve also plays a critical role in voice production and modulation. This is because it innervates the larynx, or voice box, controlling the contraction and relaxation of the muscles responsible for voice pitch, volume, and tone. When stimulated, it can help to regulate the tension in these muscles and improve the quality of our voice.
In high-stress situations, when our 'fight or flight' response is activated, our voices may become shaky or weak. This is due to a phenomenon known as 'vagal braking', where the vagus nerve reduces heart rate and stimulates the digestive system. This can make it more difficult to speak and project the voice.
By activating the vagus nerve, we can counteract this response and speak with more ease, clarity, and confidence.
"The vagus nerve, an unassuming journeyman of our physiology, finds itself at the grand intersection of the mind and voice. With its subtle influence, it crafts the symphony of our emotions, and in doing so, it shapes not just the rhythm of our hearts but the melody of our words." - Omar Bani Mustafa, Speech Language Pathologist
Understanding and harnessing the power of the vagus nerve can, therefore, lead to improved emotional and vocal control, enabling us to maintain a clear, confident mindset and voice even in stressful situations. This is why some singers and performers use vagus nerve stimulation techniques, like those below, to prepare for performances or reduce stage fright.
Ten simple ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, and calm your mind and voice.
Here are ten simple yet effective practices to improve your vagal tone, and help you think and speak calmly, confidently and clearly in any setting. Incorporating these techniques into your daily routine may well help you access their benefits when you really need them in a high-pressure moment!
1. Increase your vagal tone through breathwork
Simple breathing exercises can stimulate the vagus nerve, helping us to feel more relaxed and centered in our body. Deep belly breathing, extended exhales, alternate nostril breathing, box breathing (inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts, exhaling for 4 counts, and holding for 4 counts), 'Countdown To Calm', and my personal favourite, 'The Container', are all worth a try.
2. Use your voice to activate the vagus nerve
Research shows that toning and vocal exercises can help to stimulate the nerve, enhancing its regulating effects on our nervous system. Experiment with humming, singing, toning the "Om" chant, and reading or speaking aloud poetry and positive affirmations ("You can do this") to warm up your voice and calm your body.
3. Make time for belly laughter
Laughter has been found to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve our overall stress response. So maybe it's time to let yourself have a good belly laugh - not just for fun, but to release emotional and vocal tension. Perhaps set a goal for a daily dose of comedy, whether it's through watching stand-up shows, funny reels and memes, or socialising with friends who make you laugh.
4. Try cold exposure
There's evidence that exposing ourselves to cold temperatures can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase its tone. This could mean taking a cold shower, going for a dip in the ocean or even splashing cold water on your face and wrists all of which will help activate the nerve and improve your mood.
5. Rhythmic and mindful movement boosts vagal tone
Yoga, tai chi, dancing, rocking, swinging, repetitive exercises like rowing or cycling, and even brisk walking all have the remarkable ability to stimulate the vagus nerve. These activities harmonise our breathing and heart rate, calm our nervous system, and increase feelings of well-being and connectedness with the world around us.
6. Connect through community
Strong relationships and a sense of community have been found to increase vagal tone and support overall well-being. Connecting with friends and loved ones, joining a local library, club or reading group, and doing things you love (eating, reading, cooking, sport, singing) with others will all give your vagus nerve a boost.
7. Reduce vagal braking through diet
What we eat can also have an impact on our vagal tone. Consuming nutrient-rich foods such as leafy greens, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics can nourish the vagus nerve and minimise stress responses and illness-inducing inflammation in the body.
8. Nature time increases vagal tone
Spending time outdoors, grounding ourselves and connecting with the earth has been found to increase vagal tone and improve mental clarity and calm. So, next time you're feeling overwhelmed, take a break and go for a walk in nature.
9. Stimulate the vagus nerve through pet interaction
Dogs and cats, in particular, have a calming effect on humans, reducing stress levels and boosting mood. This interaction triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and anxiety, and in turn stimulates the vagus nerve.
10. Massage therapy can stimulate the vagus nerve
Massage stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and other health benefits. Techniques focusing on the neck and base of the skull activate this nerve, leading to reduced stress, improved digestion, lower heart rate, and enhanced vocal control. Incorporating regular massages into your routine is a great way to boost your vagal tone and indulge in self-care.
If you're already doing some of the things listed above, keep doing them in the knowledge they're helping you become a more calm, confident and effective communicator.
If there's something on the list you're not doing, give it a try, and see what happens.
Remember, consistency is key, so try and create a routine that suits your lifestyle. This is an ongoing journey, so be patient!
So, to wrap things up ...
The vagus nerve is a secret, little-known weapon in every professional's toolkit. It's an incredibly important part of our body's nervous system, with far-reaching effects on our mood, mindset, and even our voice.
Whether you're looking to reduce stress, boost your emotional well-being, or improve your vocal and executive presence stimulating the vagus nerve may be the key to unlocking a whole new world of possibilities. So if you're looking for ways to improve your health and well-being, consider giving your vagus nerve a little extra attention and see just how powerful this nerve can be.
Your mind, body, voice, and audience will thank you!
The Business Voice Coach