Did you know that meditating on kind, compassionate thoughts about others increases the tone of your vagus nerve?
Now some of you may be thinking, what the heck is that, and why is it important?! A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post called ’10 Ways to Activate Your Vagus Nerve‘ (and I encourage you to read through it for some background!) Basically, your vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It starts in the brain, circles your digestive system, and connects directly to every organ. Its signals control our blood sugar, anxiety levels, digestive enzyme/stomach acid secretion, hunger, and so much more.
The tone of your vagus nerve (“vagal tone”) is measured by tracking the difference in your heart rate as you breathe in and out. The greater the difference, the higher your vagal tone — which means the faster your body can relax after stress. Hospitals have actually begun to track this in order to evaluate heart attack risk. High vagal tone is linked to better mood, lower risk of heart disease, etc. Low vagal tone on the other hand is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.
One of the best ways to increase your own vagal tone is to focus on others: by directing thoughts of compassion, love, and goodwill towards them via meditation! Giving always comes back to us in the most unexpected ways.
The study that discovered this interesting benefit to meditation was published in the journal Psychological Science. Led by Barbara Fredrickson (professor at UNC), researchers recruited 65 subjects; half were randomly assigned to take an hour-long class each week for 6 weeks on “loving-kindness” meditation. This technique teaches you to contemplate what worries & concerns your friends may be dealing with, then repeat phrases like “may you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you live with ease.” Your focus is on sending them love.
The other half of participants were placed on a waiting list and did not take a class. Both groups had their vagal tone tested before starting the 6-week study, and again after completion. Those who were in the meditation group showed not only a measurable increase in vagal tone, but also in positive emotions like joy, interest, serenity, and hope. Fredrickson concluded,
“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion.”
After reading through the study, it occurred to me that it’s likely any form of focused meditation/relaxation would have this effect (after all, meditation is one of the 10 activities in my first post that activate your vagus nerve!) However, something tells me there is a unique response that may occur when you’re wishing well for others. Another study by researchers from the Veteran’s Administration in Seattle tested Loving-Kindness meditation for cases of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The researchers conducted a three-month course with weekly classes, and found that attendance was high – a whopping 74%. If you’ve ever tried to commit to something in your life (let’s say, the gym for three months), you know it won’t work unless you’re seeing benefits and results!
In a three-month followup of the effects of the meditation course, the researchers found that the meditation significantly reduced depression and other PTSD symptoms among the veterans.
This selfless, loving form of meditation allows us to get out of our heads, stop focusing on our problems, and think of others – which is one of the most healing things we can do. Throughout my life, when I’ve had the worst heartaches, I’ve always been lifted when I am able to help others with the exact same issue. I guess you might call it second-hand healing, and I think it’s just what the doctor ordered. We can only send that pure type of love to others after it passes through us first, so perhaps the participants who had a hard time loving or forgiving themselves experienced something they hadn’t been able to show themselves for a while.
No matter the reason why this meditation worked, I’m glad it did – and I will continue to practice it in my every day life (even if it’s just 5 minutes in the morning of sending love to the people I’m grateful for when I wake up!)