Vagus nerve icing is a new TikTok trend to help relieve stress in a quick and effective way. Although this trend is new to TikTok, many believe in the practice and note that this method has been used for many years as a way to instantly relieve stress. In this article, we discuss the practice of icing the vagus nerve and if it truly can help relieve stress and anxiety and promote a better night’s sleep.
The vagus nerve oversees the regulation of involuntary functions, and it acts as a pathway for sensory and motor signals between the brain and vital organs.
Ice water face plunge, ice packs to the face, neck, or chest, and cold water splash are all ways that have been said to promote the activity of the vagus nerve and stimulate a calmer mind.
Icing the vagus nerve is said to redirect the mind and shift the attention away from what was causing worry, anxiety, and stress, promoting a clear and refreshed mindset.
Several studies promote the use of cold water therapy to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote everything from less stress to better sleep.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is known as one of the body's longest and most intricate nerves.
Playing a crucial role in the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve oversees the regulation of involuntary functions. It acts as a pathway for sensory and motor signals between the brain and vital organs such as the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, and bowels.
This nerve facilitates the transmission of signals related to sensations like pain, pressure, and temperature to and from the brain, enabling the brain to monitor and regulate diverse bodily functions. Moreover, it influences these functions by releasing neurotransmitters that aid in controlling organ activity.
Referred to as the "wandering nerve" in the medical field, the vagus nerve transmits throughout the body, promoting overall well-being and maintaining homeostasis.
Ways to ice your vagus nerve
There are certain techniques that may indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve and promote its activity. These methods may promote relaxation and reduce stress, which can positively impact vagal tone.
- Ice water face plunge. One of the most common ways to ice the vagus verve is to take a bowl of ice water and let it sit for a few minutes to allow it to get very cold. Hold your breath, dunk your face into the water for a few seconds, and repeat as needed.
- Cold face or neck packs. Applying a cold or ice pack to the face or neck can indirectly activate the vagus nerve. The cold sensation may stimulate the nerve endings and trigger a physiological response.
- Cold water splash. If the ice water face plunge is not comfortable for you, splashing cold water on your face may provide a similar stimulating effect.
- Cold showers. Taking cold showers, particularly focusing the water on the face and neck area, can indirectly activate the vagus nerve.
- Cold compress on the chest. Placing a cold compress or ice pack on the chest area, specifically the sternum, may offer a cooling sensation that indirectly influences the vagus nerve.
Despite the popularity of the proposed techniques of vagus nerve icing, there is currently a lack of information regarding optimal duration and temperatures.
How does icing your vagus nerve work?
When the face is exposed to extreme cold or water, it activates the “dive response” and startles or shocks the body and mind. The process of icing the vagus nerve can help to redirect negative thoughts. This process is said to shift the attention away from what was causing worry, anxiety, and stress and can help promote a clear and refreshed mindset.
This process is said to work because when your body goes into a “dive response,” the blood that is typically flowing evenly throughout the body to all organs will be redirected and provide heavier blood flow to the essential organs, including your brain and your heart, instead. Your heart rate will then slow, and naturally, your body will take on a calmer state.
Does this TikTok trend relieve anxiety and promote better sleep?
One popular psychotherapist on YouTube discussed how this trend is a “legitimate therapeutic technique” and also noted that the process of icing the vagus nerve has been shown to almost immediately alleviate anxiety. Although it is not possible to directly "ice" the vagus nerve as it is deep within the body and not easily accessible for direct application of cold, the techniques noted above can indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve and promote the dive response. Once this response is stimulated, it is believed that this allows the body to be more relaxed, which can help relieve stress and anxiety and promote better sleep. However, it is important to note that the potential anxiety-relieving benefits are temporary. This method does not address the root cause of anxiety and stress, thus the users experiencing chronic anxiety and/or stress should explore alternative methods that may be more beneficial.
What does the science say?
Several studies promote the use of cold water to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve. One study that examined the effects of cold exposure on mental status, found that regular cold exposure increased self-perceived health satisfaction significantly and lowered perceived anxiety in participants.
In another study, cold stimulation at the lateral neck region was found to reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability. This suggests that cold application on the neck has the potential to reduce stress. Whether placing an ice cube on your chest or dipping it in ice-cold water can bring on similar effects needs further investigation.
Despite the social media popularity of vagus nerve icing, no clinical trials have examined how placing ice directly on your chest, or other areas of the body, benefits vagus nerve activity. Future studies should ascertain the benefits reported on social media by the users.
What are other benefits of icing the vagus nerve?
Icing the vagus nerve is reported by the users to help promote relaxation and reduce stress. Although the activation of vagus nerve is associated with the benefits described below, whether the same beneficial effects can be achieved by icing vagus nerve, remains to be established.
- Stress reduction. Activating the vagus nerve can help initiate the relaxation response, reducing stress levels and promoting a sense of calmness and well-being.
- Improved heart health. The vagus nerve plays a vital role in regulating heart rate and maintaining cardiovascular health. Enhancing vagal tone can help promote a healthy heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and improve overall heart function.
- Enhanced digestion. The vagus nerve influences the digestive system, promoting healthy digestion and nutrient absorption. Stimulating the vagus nerve may support better digestive functioning and potentially alleviate certain gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Better emotional regulation. The vagus nerve is involved in regulating emotions and mood. Icing the vagus nerve can potentially enhance emotional resilience, improve emotional regulation, and contribute to overall emotional well-being.
- Improved sleep. Icing the vagus nerve can contribute to better sleep quality. By promoting relaxation and reducing stress, vagal stimulation may help regulate sleep patterns and support restful sleep.
Risks of icing the vagus nerve
Icing the vagus nerve is generally safe; however, if you have specific medical conditions, it's always advisable to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice. Stimulating the vagus nerve through icing can cause an increased heart rate for some individuals, so if you have underlying heart disease, it’s important to discuss it with a medical professional before trying to ice the vagus nerve.
Considering that some of these techniques are believed to lower blood pressure, they should be employed with caution by individuals with already low blood pressure (as they can lower it even further). Also, individuals with cold urticaria - an allergic reaction to cold temperatures - should avoid the vagus nerve icing techniques described above.
Currently, there is a lack of information regarding the optimal and safe application durations, temperatures, and placement locations. The risks that can occur from ice applied directly to the skin could be frostbite, headaches caused by prolonged time in ice water, or discomfort in the area where ice is applied.
Other ways to relieve stress
There are several effective ways to relieve stress, and mental health apps can be helpful tools in managing and reducing stress levels.
- Practice deep breathing. Deep breathing exercises can help activate your body's relaxation response, reduce stress, and promote overall health and well-being.
- Engage in physical activity. Regular exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress. It releases endorphins, improves mood, and helps you relax and also can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can enhance mood.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness involves focusing your attention on the present moment. Meditation helps calm the mind and reduce stress and is also known to promote better concentration.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and staying hydrated can positively impact your stress levels.
- Mental health and therapy apps. There are a number of apps that can provide guided breathing exercises and meditation techniques. There are also a number of apps that can help you track and manage different aspects of your health to promote overall well-being.
Vagus nerve icing has been reported by users to offer a number of health benefits. However, it's important to note that while the methods for stimulating the vagus nerve may be beneficial to some users, more research is needed to examine the benefits of vagus nerve icing, as they are still being explored.