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Acupuncture & The Vagus Nerve


Does an unexpected email leave you agitated or heightened for longer than it should? Are you easily rattled? Does it take you longer to return to calm, relaxed and safe after being agitated or rattled?

It’s possible that you may have a dysregulated nervous system!

Most people have heard of the body’s “fight or flight response” which is the part of our nervous system that is activated when there is a perceived threat.

A healthy nervous system and Vagus nerve allows our bodies to develop appropriate stress responses, deal with the issue, and return to a calm and regulated state.

The vagus nerve is responsible for regulating our internal functions, heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate and digestion. It is also vastly important in regulating our stress responses.

Some people who are under constant stress have difficulty returning to this regulated state. Instead they remain heightened, stressed, overthinking, and either in fight or flight mode, or even freeze mode – complete shutdown. A well functioning nervous system response should allow the person to be able to address the situation appropriately, reset, and move on with daily living. 

The Vagus Nerve and Its Three States:

Ventral Vagal – That feeling of safety and connection. Appropriate communication, ability to self soothe, we can develop relationships, have fun and enjoy life, we are safe!


Sympathetic – this is when we perceive the threat, we feel the danger, we know we have to do something to deal with the threat or even take measures to avoid it (fight or flight), we are not safe!


Dorsal vagal – This is when everything else has let us down, we are not safe! We may have been in Sympathetic (fight or flight) and were unable to regulate, we are immobilised. The threat is still there and we are now conserving ourselves and our energy. Our body in trying to protect us is now by shutting down, we are potentially fully immobilised and even disassociating. We are not here!



It is vitally important to have good Vagal tone as our body and mind need us to be able to move from ventral to sympathetic and sometimes, dorsal, efficiently. 
When our bodies are in a ventral vagus state, it is responsible for things like digestion, circulation, respiration and reproduction. Which means that if we are not in this regulated state often enough there can be a wide range of health issues which may have been the reason for seeking treatment in the first place. If we can’t achieve a better vagal tone we can’t “rest and digest” and our health may be impaired. 


How does Chinese medicine view Nervous System Dysfunction?

Chinese medicine treatment is an individualised and holistic form of medicine. Not one diagnosis fits all people. However, when looking at the three states of the Vagus nerve correlations can be made with TCM pathologies.

For example, the ventral vagal state, connected and joyous, could correlate to the Heart/Fire element. The “fight or flight” state with anger, irritability and agitation is the Liver/Wood Element. The dorsal vagal, immobilised or disassociated with fear, hopelessness and panic the Kidney/Water Element.

By identifying the pattern pathology and treating the element that is out of harmony, Chinese medicine can seek to address the underlying issues and work towards reminding your system that it is actually safe, calm, and able to function.

So, how can we improve our ability to more seamlessly move from state to state?

  • Connection

The Vagus nerve gets activated when we feel love, connection, and compassion and when we are true to ourselves. Taking the time to feel compassion for yourself – How would you treat a friend that came to you with similar complaints? Would there be compassion or judgement? Often we judge ourselves far more harshly than we would a friend. Taking the time to be gentle with ourselves is very important.

  • Singing, Yelling, Humming 

All stimulate the vagus nerve. Pop on your favourite tunes and sing like there’s no one listening. 

  • Breathing

Making sure that you are breathing deeply and calmly into your diaphragm. Making sure that when you are breathing deep into your belly so that your diaphragm is moving up and down. Place your hands on the sides of the chest at the level of the bottom 2 ribs you should be able to feel these two ribs move outwards on both sides. Movement of just the shoulders and upper ribs suggests stress, anxiety and fear. 

  • Resetting the Vagus Nerve

Vagus Nerve Exercise (from Stanley Rosenberg) – try doing this at least once a day, either in the morning or last thing in the day. 


Start by lying down comfortably face-up – Interlace your hands behind your head. 


Resting your head on your hands. Take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths. Open your eyes, leave your head facing straight, take your eyes all the way to the right. Stay there for about 30-60 seconds or until you get a change in your breathing.

A sigh, yawn or swallow. This can happen quite quickly or may take a longer time. Once you get this change take your eyes back to centre, another deep breath and then repeat on the other side. 


This simple exercise uses the eye movements to engage muscles in the back of your head which brings the first two vertebrae into alignment. This is essential for the ventral Vagal state. 


This exercise doesn’t ensure us permanent “safe and connected” state but it does help improve our vagal tone. 

  • Acupuncture

Acupuncture can help calm the nervous system, by increasing the release of endorphins, the chemicals that regulate inflammatory responses and help us feel good. Acupuncture has also been found to improve Heart Rate Variability (HRV), the variation of time between each heart beat which is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. High HRV is a sign that your nervous system is regulated and adapting well to changes in circumstances. 

  • Exercise

Gentle exercise can do a number of things for a dysregulated nervous system. Activities like Yoga, Qigong or walking out in nature can help with smooth flow of qi, thus decreasing agitation, can increase feelings of connection, especially if undertaken with family or friends and can work off excess stress hormones which may be leading to those feelings of being unsafe. 


See how your body feels with gentle exercise. Or book in for an appointment to get personalised Qigong routines to best suit you. 


Quite often it is as simple as adding a couple of small daily rituals each week or fortnight until you have a comfortable and achievable schedule in place. This will all work towards better emotional regulation, enhanced vagal tone and even help regulate your nervous system so that your body is freed up to regulate digestion, respiration, circulation and reproduction. 

Acupuncture is a wonderful therapy that can help reset the nervous system and calm the body and mind. Ballarat Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine offers degree qualified acupuncturists and herbalists registered with AHPRA.

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