Building Social Connections with the Vagus Nerve

Building Social Connections with the Vagus Nerve this Valentine’s Day

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With Valentine's Day approaching, building loving social connections is on the forefront of everyone's mind. Today, we're going to share how building these connections is still possible...and how the vagus nerve can help!

In 2021, a "full social calendar" looks pretty different than it did in previous years. What was once a schedule packed with lunch dates, dinners, galas, events, and casual social gatherings, is now full of video calls and socially distanced gatherings. But there are still ways to build strong connections and simultaneously enjoy the benefits of doing so.

The benefits of building social connections

Before we explore building connections around Valentine's Day, let's talk about the importance of these connections in the first place.

Whether they're romantic or platonic, social connections serve a very useful purpose. In fact, for elderly people, studies show they can even help stave off dementia by contributing to more gray matter in regions of the brain related to dementia. And it isn't only the elderly who benefit from these connections.

Other studies have found people of all ages benefit from social engagement, including:

  • Lower rates of anxiety and depression
  • Better emotional regulation
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Increased empathy
  • Stronger immune system

Now that we know some of the benefits of these social connections, let's discuss how to build them in the first place.

The vagus nerve and social connections

When you think of social interactions, your vagus nerve might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But it just so happens to play an interesting role in boosting the benefits of these connections. 

Fight or flight vs. rest and digest

Think of the last time you were startled–by a real or imaginary threat–and how your heart rate kicked into overdrive. Maybe you started sweating, you're tense, trembling, flushed, and on edge. This is thanks to the sympathetic nervous system being in overdrive.

Sometimes, there's a good evolutionary reason to be in fight or flight mode: to protect you from a threat! Your ancient ancestors might have benefited from this response when they faced a threat like a wild animal. Now, these threats might look like a car swerving into your lane or a particularly tense phone call. But what hasn't changed is how the nervous system responds to these threats. 

Now recall when this feeling passed. A feeling of calm begins to come over you. Your heart rate slows, you are able to take deep breaths again. This is thanks to the parasympathetic activity contributing to what's known as the "rest and digest" response.

From an evolutionary perspective, the rest and digest response serves a number of purposes. When this system kicks in, it can help maintain long-term health, improve your digestion, conserve energy, and maintain a healthy balance in the body's systems. 

As you can imagine, if you're in a frequent state of fight or flight, you'll feel tense, on edge, and stressed more often than you would like to. But do you need to rely on chance when it comes to have your parasympathetic nervous system kick in and take over? No–not always! 

In fact, there are a number of ways to trigger this response, including vagus nerve stimulation.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is a major component in the parasympathetic nervous system. When the vagus nerve is toned and strong, you can activate your relaxation response and regulate tension. The stronger your vagus response, the more likely you may be to recover quickly from stressful events. (For more on the vagus nerve and resilience, check out this post next)

And we know what your next question is: HOW can I stimulate my vagus nerve to enjoy all the benefits of increased parasympathetic activity? 

Well, as it turns out, building social connections can be a great tool stimulating and strengthening the vagus nerve!

Social connections and polyvagal activity

So, how exactly do social connections help with vagal nerve activity? First, let's take a look at some of Dr. Stephen Porges' research on what's known as the "social nervous system" to better understand it.

According to Dr. Porges' Polyvagal Theory (PVT), there are three functions of the autonomic nervous system: social communication, defensive mobilization, and defensive immobilization. When we're in defensive modes, we're more likely to experience higher reported stress levels and other negative effects. 

On the other hand, when the social component of this system (the ventral vagal complex or (VVC)) is engaged, we're more likely to feel calm and relaxed. Interestingly, this response also helps us build stronger social connections!

During face to face social interactions, the social nervous system serves as the driver for expressive and receptive domains of verbal communication. It helps guide the rhythm and tone of your speech, and the vagus nerve even plays a role in the muscles in your face and how you respond to others.

When the vagus nerve is toned and strong, you can better respond to, listen, and engage with others. Ultimately, improving the depth and quality of your social connections, whether romantic or otherwise. 

Building Loving Connections this Valentine’s Day

Now we know that vagus nerve activity can contribute to better social connections. Before we discuss more ways to improve vagal tone, here are three quick tips for building connections of the romantic nature this Valentine's Day.

Get creative

Creative social interactions have a whole new meaning this year! Face to face interactions aren't always possible now, but luckily, video calls are a great alternative. If you can't meet up with others in person, aim for video calls over phone calls or text messaging instead. With video calls, you are better able to establish deeper connections because you can pick up on physical social cues, including those facial muscles influenced by the vagus nerve. 

If you're having a "socially distanced" Valentine's Day, here are some ways to promote your emotional wellness during this time. 

Focus on being a good listener

Do you tend to talk more when you're nervous? Or perhaps you find yourself waiting for your turn to talk rather than truly listening to what the other person has to say? To build stronger, more loving connections, switch your focus to being an active listener. 

Your partner or suitors will respond to this effort, and you'll get to know more about the other person and understand them on a deeper level. 

Try something new

One of the best ways to bond with another person is by partaking in a new activity together. While a deep conversation over coffee or wine is one great way to connect, try something different this year! 

Maybe it's taking a class together or picking up a hobby that's new for both of you. But whatever it is, you'll find you're able to bond in a new way over this shared experience. 

Other ways to strengthen and tone the vagus nerve

Building stronger social connections is one way to tone the vagus nerve. At the same time, the stronger the vagus nerve, the easier it is to build these strong connections! In addition to social interactions, what are other ways you can actively tone the vagal nerve?

At Neuvana, our favorite way to do this is by vagus-nerve-stimulating headphones! That's right–you can actually strengthen your vagal tone by wearing Xen by Neuvana headphones and listening to your favorite music or sounds. That way, you can experience the calming, soothing effects of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) all on your own terms. 

Xen is a patented electronic device that delivers gentle micropulses through headphones directly to the vagus nerve located in your ear. It pairs wirelessly to your Neuvana app, where you can customize your sessions. The result? Improved focus and calm anywhere you are–on the way to work, on your daily walk, or just cuddled up on the couch! 

So, whether you want to build new loving connections this Valentine's Day or deepen the social connections you already have, why not harness the power of VNS to help you do it? Click here to learn more about how Xen by Neuvana headphones work, or click here to shop Xen today

Interested in learning more about all things vagus nerve? Here are three blog posts to visit next: