The next time you’re feeling anxious, try humming a little tune. On TikTok, creators are sharing all sorts of techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve for relaxation and stress relief, and humming tops the list as one of the easiest tricks.
The vagus nerve plays an important role in your autonomic nervous system, says physical therapist Dr. Udim Isang, PT, DPT, CSRS. It travels from behind your ears and down your neck to your abdomen, and it helps regulate all sorts of bodily functions related to the stress response, including your heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate.
“When the body perceives stress, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response, which can lead to increased heart rate and other stress-related symptoms,” Isang tells Bustle. “The vagus nerve acts as a counterbalance to this response — it promotes the rest and digest state, helping to lower heart rate, reduce inflammation, and induce relaxation.”
So, how does humming help you relax? “It's all about the vibes — quite literally,” says Dr. Easton Gaines, Psy.D., a holistic clinical psychologist in New York. “When you hum, your vocal muscles create these soothing vibrations that travel down your throat and chest and stimulate the vagus nerve, triggering a relaxation response.”
As you let out a throaty “hmmm,” the sound vibrates your vocal cords and massages the nerves running through your neck, which is what helps to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system. “The autonomic nervous system is like the yin and yang of our physiology,” Gaines says. “The vagus nerve is the star player on team chill, helping us recover from stressful moments by slowing our heart rate and promoting digestion.”
Humming also helps to slow your breathing speed while stimulating the release of nitric oxide, which has a calming effect on the body, says Isang. “All of these factors contribute to relaxation and stress reduction.”
According to Gaines, humming isn’t a magic fix, but it is a nifty trick to have in your anti-anxiety toolbox. “Think of it as a gentle, immediate mood booster that can bring you a step closer to relaxation,” she tells Bustle. “Combine it with other relaxation techniques, and you'll have a powerful stress-fighting ensemble at your disposal.”
How To Hum To Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
To stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, Isang recommends starting your humming sesh with a few deep breaths to help you relax. From there, you can either hum a song or go for a long, steady one-note hum. Hum a note for a few seconds, then take a slow, deep breath and hum again until you feel less stressed.
“There is no specific time requirement, but humming for a few minutes is a good starting point,” Isang says. “The volume of your humming doesn't need to be loud, either — the key is the rhythmic, controlled breathing and the vibration produced.”
The best par? You can hum anytime, anywhere.
Breit, S. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044.
Gerritsen, RJS. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397.
Howland, R. H. (2014). Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, 1(2), 64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40473-014-0010-5
Dr. Udim Isang, PT, DPT, CSRS, physical therapist
Dr. Easton Gaines, Psy.D., holistic clinical psychologist