How to Overcome Trauma & PTSD without Medication

The subjective experience of trauma is unique and varies according to the individual and the type of trauma. What does not vary is the fact that trauma often results in a devastating intrusion into a wished-for life of peace, calm, and well-being, along with a corresponding unexpected and undesired fragmented sense of self and of life in general.
— Dr. Rollin McCraty, Ph.D.

Eating healthy and supplementing with specific nutrients was never enough for me to overcome my chronic mental health problems.

how-to-overcome-emotional-trauma-without-medication-therapy-ptsd- psychological-mental-health-brain-pain-symptoms-shock-overcoming-healing-from-psychology-childhood-effects-adults-tramatic-experience-abuse-dealing-old-wounds-types

I had to work hard at overcoming emotionally traumatic experiences as well. 

Trauma isn’t just something that happens to you in the past.

It’s not just a story or a memory.

Emotional trauma can actually change your brain, and how you see yourself in the world, leading to profoundly disturbing physical sensations and emotions in the present moment. 

It can occur because of one single event, or build up gradually due to a threatening or lonely environment.

These traumatic events and experiences, in both childhood and adulthood, can linger inside you and make you feel depressed, anxious and fearful for years. 

This is commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it’s a heavy burden to carry.

We’re made to believe that talk therapy and psychiatric drugs are the best way to overcome it.

But that is simply not true.

You can overcome psychological and emotional trauma without having to resort to life-long therapy and medication.

It’s not necessarily easy. 

It can take some time and effort.

But it can definitely be done.

I’m living proof. 

So today I’m going to share with you the therapies and treatments that have changed the course of my life by allowing me to permanently overcome emotional trauma and PTSD. 
 

Why Talk Therapy and Drugs Aren’t the Best Treatment Options

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a psychiatrist at the Boston University School of Medicine and one the world’s leading experts on trauma, is convinced that talk therapy isn’t that effective, and psychiatric drugs don’t get to the root of traumatic issues:

The study of trauma shows that you cannot “knock sense” into people by talking to them. Trauma is not an issue of cognition. It’s an issue of disordered biological systems.

Based on my experience, I agree with Bessel van der Kolk, and I highly recommend you check out his book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma if you’re interested in learning more. 

The book talks about how the brain is shaped by traumatic experiences, how traumatic stress is experienced by the entire body, and how this knowledge needs to be integrated into conventional treatment. 

Because of trauma, I used to struggle with chronic hyper-vigilance – a heightened state of awareness and over-activation of my "fight-or-flight" response. 

In other words, my brain was irrationally on constant alert.

This is because trauma impacts the “unconscious, emotional, reptilian" part of our brains, causing us to become chronically frightened and interpret the world as dangerous.

You know you shouldn’t feel that way, but you do.

And then that makes you feel even more defective and ashamed.

You cannot reason your way out of that.

Talk therapy can be helpful in acknowledging what has happened to you and how it has affected you.

But talking about it doesn’t put it behind you.

It simply does not go deep enough and affect the emotional, reptilian part of your brain. 

Your body can actually hold onto trauma, and it wasn’t until I tapped into the reptilian part of my brain with the following 12 treatments and therapies that I was able to permanently let it go and move on with my life. 

And even if you don't think you've experienced anything too traumatic, you'll probably benefit from these steps. 

1. Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that shows you your brain activity in real-time and teaches you how to self-regulate it.  

Sensors are placed on your scalp to measure your brain’s activity, and the measurements are displayed using video or sound.

In this powerful video, a captain with multiple deployments in Iraq shares his experiences in dealing with PTSD, and how neurofeedback treatment aided in his recovery.

Personally, neurofeedback was the most impactful action I took to overcome trauma. I previously wrote about my experience with it here

It works at a deep subconscious level, breaking the cycle of trauma and post-traumatic symptoms.

It allows you to move past traumatic events without actually having to talk about them and relive them, and shifts you into a natural, healthier state of mind.

And research shows that it works. 
 
Just last year, individuals with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder completed 40 sessions of neurofeedback, and researchers found it significantly reduced their PTSD symptoms (3). 

In my 38 years of practice, I have never seen any treatment that comes close to producing the results that Neurofeedback offers. I have seen results achieved in days and weeks that previously took months and years to achieve, using the best methods available to us.
— Dr. Jack Woodward, MD, Board Certified Psychiatrist

In another study, victims of torture who had not responded to conventional treatment did 20 sessions of neurofeedback and demonstrated a “substantial recovery” (5). 

Researchers have also concluded that neurofeedback is “helpful in the shedding of substance dependencies that are common in treatment-resistant PTSD” (4). 

If you’re interested in digging more into the research, here is a list of studies looking at neurofeedback for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. 

It’s best to work with a qualified practitioner.

But I also like the Muse headband. It’s a good substitute and gives you real-time feedback in your brainwaves while you meditate.

I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website

Click here to subscribe

2. Vagus Nerve Stimulation

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body and part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.

Stimulating your vagus nerve allows you to more effectively respond to emotional trauma and overcome it. 

Research shows that vagus nerve stimulation can help treat a number of treatment-resistant anxiety disorders. This includes patients with PTSD that haven’t responded to medication (34-35). 

Vagus nerve stimulation has also been shown to enhance the “extinction of conditioned fear”, making it useful for severe anxiety and PTSD (36-38). 

So how do you stimulate your vagus nerve naturally?

I previously provided 13 ways to activate your vagus nerve in this post.

I recommend reading that post alongside this one because many of the mind-body practices and nutrients discussed – such as yoga, acupuncture, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids – have also been shown to directly help people overcome emotional trauma. 

3. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

The cure for the pain is the pain.
— Rumi

I mentioned above that neurofeedback lets you move past traumatic events without actually having to talk about them and re-live them.

But sometimes that isn’t enough.

Sometimes you have to relive your trauma to actually move past it. 

That’s where Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) comes in.  

EMDR is a fairly new, non-traditional type of psychotherapy, but it’s growing in popularity, particularly for treating emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During a session, your therapist will move his or her fingers back and forth in front of your face. You’ll then follow the hand motions with your eyes while thinking of a disturbing event from your past. 

As you do this, your brain will start to reprocess the traumatic memory until it no longer bothers you. It allows you to come to peaceful terms with previously-disturbing events and, surprisingly, leads to increased insight about yourself. 

In my experience, it is one of the most impactful actions you can take for your mental health. 

This is a very good video about EMDR and trauma. More people should see it. 

I did 4 sessions of EMDR and it really helped me come to terms with certain traumatic experiences from my past. I didn’t know it at the time, but these previously traumatic events were wearing me down, and life is now lighter and brighter since finishing the treatments.  

According to Dr. Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain’s Way of Healing, EMDR is the most promising treatment for trauma and PTSD.

More than 30 controlled clinical trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR therapy for overcoming emotional trauma and PTSD (15, 25-33). 

Several studies have found that 84 to 100% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after just three 90-minute EMDR sessions (16). 

Other studies have found that 77% of multiple trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after only six sessions, and 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions (17, 18). 

And EMDR has also been shown to be effective in children who have experienced emotional trauma (19). 

As a result of this, researchers and multiple health organizations have concluded that EMDR should be a first-line treatment for acute and chronic PTSD, and must be considered before medication because it’s been shown to be more effective than SSRI antidepressants (20-24). 

Although the research continues to pile up in support of EMDR, it remains controversial among some health care professionals. This is likely because it does not rely on life-long talk therapy or medication, and therefore puts a lot of people out of business.

It’s best to work with a qualified EMDR therapist first so that you understand how EMDR works.

Once you experience the treatment and understand it, you can actually self-administer EMDR

4. Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta)

I recently found out about loving-kindness meditation in Tim Ferriss’ new book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, and have been practicing it since.

Loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a practice designed to enhance feelings of kindness and compassion for yourself and others.

loving-kindness-meditation-tim-ferriss-tools-titans-how-to-overcome-emotional-trauma-without-medication-therapy-ptsd- psychological-mental-health-brain-pain-symptoms-shock-overcoming-healing-from-psychology-childhood-effects-adults-tramatic-experience-abuse-dealing-old-wounds-types

You repeat positive phrases to yourself and direct well-wishes towards other people.

You can learn how to practice it here or through this video

In one study, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) practiced loving-kindness meditation for 12 weeks. 

At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers reported increased levels of mindfulness and self-compassion in the veterans. 

And three months later, the veterans had reduced symptoms of trauma and depression because of their enhanced feelings of compassion (1). 

Another study found increased positive emotions and self-acceptance in veterans who practiced loving-kindness meditation (2). 

Click here to subscribe

5. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

Emotional Freedom Technique, or “tapping”, is a form of therapy based on ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. 

emotional-freedom-technique-eft-how-to-overcome-emotional-trauma-without-medication-therapy-ptsd- psychological-mental-health-brain-pain-symptoms-shock-overcoming-healing-from-psychology-childhood-effects-adults-tramatic-experience-abuse-dealing-old-wounds-types

It involves tapping a series of acupressure points while thinking about a traumatic event and stating positive affirmations.

It’s best to do EFT alongside a therapist, but you can also practice it yourself.

If you’re interested in learning how to do it yourself, check out The Tapping World Summit, and the book, The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living

I’ve never done EFT with a therapist but I use the technique myself on a regular basis to reduce stress.

I previously discussed how it can lower your stress hormone here

Research also shows that it can also help you manage and overcome emotional trauma. 

Last year, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of all high-quality EFT studies and concluded that 4 to 10 sessions of EFT can effectively treat post-traumatic stress disorder without side effects. They determined that it’s just as effective as EMDR and cognitive behavior therapy (6). 
    
Researchers have stated that even though the approach has been controversial, there’s no doubt that EFT “is unusually effective in its speed and power because deactivating signals are sent directly to the [fear centre of the brain]” (12).

Tapping on selected acupoints during imaginal psychological exposure quickly and permanently reduces maladaptive fear responses to traumatic memories and related cues.
— Dr. David Feinstein

Several individual studies have also found that it quickly and permanently reduces PTSD symptoms in military veterans, disaster survivors, and other traumatized individuals (7-11).

With veterans, studies have found that EFT significantly reduces their psychological distress, and 90% participants no longer score positive for PTSD after just six treatment sessions. These improvements remained one year later (13-14). 

The film Operation: Emotional Freedom also documents a number of veterans and their families as they go through EFT therapy.

6. Forgiveness

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
— Nelson Mandela

Research shows that difficulty forgiving oneself and difficulty forgiving others is associated with increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (51). 

One study found that a when a victim of emotional trauma forgives the person at fault, there is a significant reduction in their PTSD symptoms (52). 

how-to-overcome-emotional-trauma-without-medication-therapy-ptsd- psychological-mental-health-brain-pain-symptoms-shock-overcoming-healing-from-psychology-childhood-effects-adults-tramatic-experience-abuse-dealing-old-wounds-types-forgiveness-affirmations

And emotionally-abused women that did forgiveness therapy experienced significantly greater improvements in their PTSD symptoms than women who received an alternative treatment (53). 

So if you’ve experienced emotional trauma, you need to focus on letting go. 

Easier said than done, I know. Luckily, a lot of the therapies above – particularly EMDR – make it easier to forgive. 

I started using “forgiveness affirmations” several years ago after reading The Success Principles:  How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be by Jack Canfield.

Below is the main forgiveness affirmation from the book, and I recommend reading the full book for more tips on forgiveness.

I release myself from all the demands and judgments that have kept me limited. I allow myself to go free – to live in joy and love and peace. I allow myself to create fulfilling relationships, to have success in my life, to experience pleasure, to know that I am worthy and deserve to have what I want. I now go free. In that process I release all others from any demands and expectations I have placed on them. I choose to be free. I allow others to be free. I forgive myself and I forgive them. And so it is.

7. Brain Stimulation

There are several forms of brain stimulation, but two stand out for the treatment of emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The first is cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES), which I have personal experience with. 

CES involves the application of a low intensity micro-current (less than 2 mA) to the brain. This current stimulates the brain via electrodes placed on the earlobes, and affects emotional regulation by influencing neurotransmission in the brain – including serotonin, norepinephrine and melatonin – which play a role in depression, anxiety and sleep (42-44). 

I know it sounds dangerous but it is very safe and has been widely used in Europe since 1950 and in the US since the 1960s (39). 

It’s also been cleared by Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction and insomnia (41). 

Research has found that CES treatment (20 to 60 minutes daily, 3 to 5 days each week for 4 weeks) decreases the frequency of PTSD symptoms in veterans (40). 

In an online survey of 145 veterans and military personnel, 60% of individuals used CES to treat their PTSD, and the majority of participants reported at least a 50% reduction in their PTSD symptoms when using their CES device for at least 20 minutes, once or twice daily. The results shows that individuals who were not taking any prescription medication rated CES more effective than veterans who were also taking medication (45, 46). 

Unlike all other brain stimulation modalities, it’s relatively inexpensive and you don’t need to go see a professional to take advantage of it. 

I use it based on the presentation of the client – do they have difficulty falling asleep? Are they anxious or depressed? Do they have chronic pain? These symptoms respond well to CES. It is a non-addictive alternative to medication; a gentler solution.
— Dr. Jonathan Douglas

I personally use the cranial electrical stimulation that comes with the David Delight Pro device. You can get it here or through Amazon.

I find it really helpful when I’m stuck in an “anxious rut.” It snaps me out of it. It also calms my nervous system and makes me sleepy before bed. I often combine it with this acupressure mat.

I've also heard that the Fischer Wallace CES device helps a lot of people but haven’t used it personally. 

The other form of brain stimulation that can help you overcome emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) 

TMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.

Studies have found that TMS can significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms including hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, vigilance, withdrawal and emotional numbness. The effects are persistent and remained significant 3 months after treatment (47-49). 

However, unlike CES, you cannot do TMS at home. You need to find a practitioner who provides the treatment. 

8. Gratitude

Gratitude is the tendency to appreciate positive occurrences or being thankful for receiving certain benefits in your life.

how-to-overcome-emotional-trauma-without-medication-therapy-ptsd- psychological-mental-health-brain-pain-symptoms-shock-overcoming-healing-from-psychology-childhood-effects-adults-tramatic-experience-abuse-dealing-old-wounds-types-gratitude

Studies have shown that gratitude is associated with increased resilience to emotional trauma, and individuals with PTSD have significantly lower dispositional gratitude (54-55, 58).

But luckily, this can be changed through practice. 

Research shows that over time, daily gratitude promotes positive outcomes after trauma and reduces symptoms of PTSD (56-57). 

My recommendation is to write down five things that you’re grateful for every day. I try to do this regularly.

They don’t have to be big things. Anything will do. It could be as simple as being grateful for the apple that you ate today.

And if you do this every day, you’ll start to gather a pretty big list of things that you can look over whenever you’re feeling ungrateful. 

Click here to subscribe

9. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Biofeedback

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats.

It’s a reliable psycho-physiological marker for the functioning of your nervous system and accurately reflects your ability to cope with stress.

People with good HRV tend to be more optimistic, take initiative and are stress resistant.

People with low HRV tend to be depressed or anxious and have trouble learning.

Several studies show that higher HRV is associated with less anxiety and fear, and individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder display lower levels of HRV (63, 65-66, 69-72). 

Our results don’t necessarily suggest that lower HRV causes PTSD, rather that it’s a harbinger or a signal that the body’s stress response system is not functioning optimally and that may put the individual at greater risk of developing PTSD once he or she has been exposed to a trauma.
— Dr. Arpi Minassian, Ph.D

In one study, marines whose HRV was low before they were deployed were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD after deployment (73, 74). 

Luckily you can increase your HRV

Researchers have found that HRV biofeedback significantly reduces symptoms of PTSD, improves cognition for those suffering from PTSD, and improves the efficacy of other therapies that treat emotional trauma (64, 67-68, 75). 

I increase my HRV by using the EmWave2 biofeedback device

You can get it through Amazon or the HeartMath website, and I previously wrote about the benefits of using it here.

It’s been shown to increases HRV coherence in combat veterans with PTSD (76-77). 

And it’s important to note that when your HRV is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (78-80). 

So stimulating your vagus nerve will also increase your HRV. Check out this post for 13 ways to do it. 

10. Curcumin

Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.

It’s one of my favourite compounds for the brain

As I discussed before, it can lower your stress hormone, increase your brain’s growth hormone, and strengthen the integrity of your blood-brain barrier

It may also be able to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder. 

PTSD is characterized by unusually strong and persistently reactivated “fear memories", and researchers have found that curcumin impairs the reconsolidation of fear memories in animals, and concluded that it could be used to treat PTSD (50). 

In other words, supplementing with curcumin may help your brain forget about previously traumatic experiences. 

There are several different forms of “bioavailable” curcumin and I've tried most of them. The “Longvida” form is my favourite. You can get it here.

11. Magnesium

Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body. This includes neurotransmitter, enzyme, and hormonal activity, all of which can have a huge effect on your mood and brain function.

It’s one of the three nutrients that I think everyone should be taking for their brain, as most people are deficient.

As I’ve discussed before, it can help you overcome addiction and withdrawal and support your brain's mitochondria.

Studies reveal that magnesium enhances this process so that events which previously caused an emotional response no longer trigger fear. Magnesium L-threonate helps the prefrontal region of the brain block the return of old fear memories.
— Dr. Michael Smith

It can also help you overcome emotional trauma. 

Studies have found that supplementing with magnesium threonate increases levels of magnesium in the brain and enhances the extinction of conditioned fear responses to traumatic memories. The researchers concluded that it may be used to enhance PTSD therapy (59, 60). 

Foods that contain magnesium include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas.

But supplementation or taking Epsom salt baths is still necessary for most people because magnesium is rapidly used up during times of stress and certain psychiatric drugs can deplete magnesium. You can get the threonate form here. 

12. Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone released by your pineal gland, a small gland in your brain. It helps control your sleep and wake cycles (circadian rhythm), and adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.

A disrupted circadian rhythm is linked to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and researchers have concluded that supplementing with melatonin is a “promising treatment strategy in the management of PTSD” (61). 

Animal research has also shown that melatonin reduces PTSD-induced anxiety-like behaviors in rats (62). 

You can get melatonin here.

Or you can take this sleep supplement. It contains magnesium and a number of natural compounds that increase the production of melatonin naturally. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount. 

Other than supplementing with melatonin or taking a sleep supplement, here are some others actions you can take to naturally produce more melatonin and improve the quality of your sleep:

Conclusion

You don’t have to live with emotional trauma for the rest of your life. 

You can overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and live a happy, fulfilling life

how-to-overcome-emotional-trauma-without-medication-therapy-ptsd- psychological-mental-health-brain-pain-symptoms-shock-overcoming-healing-from-psychology-childhood-effects-adults-tramatic-experience-abuse-dealing-old-wounds-types

And medication and life-long talk therapy are not your only solutions, despite what many so-called experts say.

There is a much better way.

Remember, traumatic stress has very little to do with cognition. Instead, it stems from the emotional part of the brain that is rewired to constantly send out messages of danger.

These therapies and treatments have helped me come out on the other side of emotionally traumatizing experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder, and have allowed me to live more fully in the present moment:

I hope you get the chance to try them and they help you too. :)

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain and Mental Health!

Click here to subscribe

Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

Connect with me

References:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23893519/

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25397820

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26782083

(4) https://www.eeginfo.com/research/articles/PTSD-NeurofeedbackRemedy.pdf

(5) http://www.eeginfo.com/research/researchpapers/RodaKorset_update%20graphics%20corrected.pdf

(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/27889444/

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24439093

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21629014

(9) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27543343

(10) http://journals.sfu.ca/seemj/index.php/seemj/article/view/377

(11) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22402094/

(12) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22402094/

(13) http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1534765609347549?journalCode=tmta

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23364126

(15) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_movement_desensitization_and_reprocessing

(16) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10225500

(17) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/

(18) http://www.emdr.com.au/faq.php

(19) http://www.istss.org/treating-trauma/effective-treatments-for-ptsd,-2nd-edition.aspx

(20) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24338345

(21) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23842024

(22) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17267924

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19169192

(24) https://goo.gl/mUXgC7.

(25) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/

(26) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17990196

(27) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22622278

(28) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16740177

(29) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25101684

(30) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25188700

(31) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25974059

(32) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02109568

(33) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21629014

(34) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402102/

(35) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20633378/

(36) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4166996/

(37) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25278857

(38) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4176918/

(39) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11455071/

(40) https://stress.org/wp-content/uploads/CES_Research/CES-for-PTSD.pdf

(41) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=cranial+electrotherapy+stimulation+psychiatric+clinics

(42) http://www.bestbrainmachines.com/Cerebrospinal_fluid_and_cranial_electrical_stimulation.pdf

(43) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=cranial+electrotherapy+stimulation+psychiatric+clinics

(44) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22741094

(45) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25830798

(46) http://medistim.hu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Military-Survey-Poster.pdf

(47) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14992978/

(48) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20051219/

(49) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4177524/

(50) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25430781

(51) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15253099

(52) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24898771

(53) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17032096

(54) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/16389060/

(55) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4588123/

(56) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27548470

(57) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4676265/

(58) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26626947

(59) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3668337/

(60) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22016520

(61) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jpi.12330/pdf

(62) http://koomeshjournal.semums.ac.ir/browse.php?a_id=2598&sid=1&slc_lang=en

(63) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9821570

(64) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4375291/

(65) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26095980

(66) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152223/

(67) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20680439

(68) https://www.resourcenter.net/images/AAPB/Files/Biofeedback/2008/biof_trauma_treatment.pdf

(69) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27311838

(70) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10804906

(71) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4862083/

(72) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3246136/

(73) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/851634

(74) http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2436276

(75) http://www.aapb-biofeedback.com/doi/abs/10.5298/1081-5937-41.3.05?code=aapb-site

(76) https://goo.gl/jAUzHZ

(77) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20653296

(78) http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/118/8/863.long

(79) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_rate_variability

(80) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagal_tone

Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

Affiliate Disclosure

Disclaimer

How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health

By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist

Stimulation of my vagus nerve has played a key role in the management of my anxiety and mental health over the years. 

What exactly is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body.

How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. 

In fact, the word "vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs.  

The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.

But what you really need to pay special attention to is the "tone" of your vagus nerve.

Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. 

Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.

In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa (5).

It’s almost like yin and yang. The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.
— Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels (1-3). 

Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). 

When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (53-55). 

You can increase your HRV by using the EmWave2 device

Some researchers actually use the EmWave2 to measure vagal tone in their studies. 

If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.

Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone has been shown to help treat a wide variety of brain and mental health conditions, including:

For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. And it works (6-9). 

But you don’t need to go down that route.

You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these 13 steps. 

1. Cold Exposure

Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways (10). 

cold-exposure-shower-baths-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve (11).

I often take cold showers and go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing.

Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.

It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.

You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice cold water. 

2. Deep and Slow Breathing

Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. 

How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve (51-52). 

Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. 

The best way to know if you’re on the right track is by using the EmWave2 device. It’s a biofeedback device that assists you in pacing your breathing. I previously wrote about the benefits of using the device here. You can get it through Amazon or the HeartMath website

3. Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling

The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. 

Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.

And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (12).

I often gargle water before swallowing it. This is discussed more in Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?

Click here to subscribe

4. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (46). 

ear-acupuncture-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

I’m a really big fan of auricular acupuncture. Auricular acupuncture is when needles are inserted into ear. I’d recommend trying to find a health practitioner in your area who provides it, especially if you’re weening off psychiatric medication. It really helped me the first time I came off antidepressants. I was surprised.

Research shows that ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, increases vagal activity and vagal tone, and can help treat “neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation” (45). 

In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture. I’m not sure why. I’ve just personally noticed more benefits from ear acupuncture. 

At the end of each appointment, my practitioner would secure these small black seeds on my ear. 

I also use this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed. 

5. Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and tai chi are two “mind-body” relaxation techniques that work by stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.

How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents”, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (13-18). 

Researchers have also found that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore should be practiced by people who struggle with depression and anxiety (19). 

Despite all the great research, I’m personally not a big fan of yoga. A lot of people swear by it but it’s just not for me. I prefer tai chi. 

Tai chi has also been shown to increase heart rate variability, and researchers think this means it can “enhance vagal modulation” (20).

6. Probiotics

It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve (27).  

probiotics-bacteria-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

In one study, animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behaviour. 

The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood (25). 

Another study found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum normalized anxiety-like behavior in mice by acting through the vagus nerve (26). 

Both Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum are included in the Optimal Biotics supplement

I previously wrote about some other ways you can increase the good bacteria in your gut. You can read about that here.

And here are 7 other probiotic strains that can help treat anxiety. 

Click here to subscribe

7. Meditation and Neurofeedback

Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.        

Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself (22, 23). 

Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation (21). 

“OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (24). 

I couldn’t find any research demonstrating this, but in my experience, neurofeedback significantly increased my heart-rate variability and vagal tone as measured by my EmWave2

Now that I’m done neurofeedback, I use the Muse headband to meditate. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback on your brainwaves. I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website.

 

8. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.

They often appear in most of my posts because they are so critical for brain and mental health and affect so many aspects of wellness. 

They’ve been shown to help people overcome addiction, repair a “leaky brain”, and even help reverse cognitive decline.

But researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity (35-37, 40). 

Studies shown that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve (34, 38, 39). 

And high fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance” (35). 

That's why I eat lots of wild-caught salmon, as well as supplement with this krill oil

9. Exercise

I’ve already discussed how exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.

But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects (28). 

exercise-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. 

This is my exercise routine:

  • Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week

  • High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week

  • Walk as much as I can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)

Walking, weightlifting and sprinting are the best forms of exercise, but you should choose a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently. 

Click here to subscribe

10. Zinc

As I’ve discussed before, zinc is an essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with chronic anxiety

One study shows that zinc increases vagus nerve stimulation in zinc-deficient rats (41). 

It’s estimated that 2 billion people in the world are deficient in zinc, and six different studies show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults (42-44).

So, if you struggle with a brain or mental health disorder, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient.  

Some of the best food sources of zinc include oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms and spinach. 

However, I still recommend at least short-term supplementation to ensure you get enough.

I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement to make sure my zinc levels are optimal. 

Check out my previous post about zinc and copper if you’re interested in discovering more steps you can take to increase your zinc levels. 

11. Massage

Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone (31-32). 

massage-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body.

Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response (29). 

Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures (30). 

I personally get a massage from a registered massage therapist every couple of months. 

12. Socializing and Laughing

I’ve already discussed how socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone.

Laughing-socializing-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

And now I’ve learned that they are likely doing this by stimulating the vagus nerve. 

Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions (47, 48). 

Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood (49). 

And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another (50). 

So my advice is to hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible. Although I should probably be taking my own advice here, as I’m an introvert and often avoid socializing too much. 

13. Intermittent Fasting

On most days, I don’t eat breakfast at all, and then "break my fast" by eating my first meal of the day around 2 or 3 p.m. That means I eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window.

intermittent-fasting-How-to-Stimulate-Your-Vagus-Nerve-for-Better-Mental-Health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction

There are many health benefits to doing this. As I’ve discussed before, intermittent fasting can boost your brain’s growth hormone, improve mitochondrial function, and may help some people overcome brain fog and cognitive decline

Research also shows that fasting and caloric restriction increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone (33). 

The best way to start fasting is simply by eating dinner around 6, not eating anything after that before bed, and then eating a regular breakfast the next day. That should give you about 12-14 hours of fasting time. 

Conclusion

You don’t have to be controlled by your body and mind. You have the power to tell them what to do. 

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to you body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience. 

Increasing my vagal tone has allowed me to overcome anxiety and depression, and better manage them when they arise.

Overall, I hope you implement some of the above steps into your daily life, and they allow you to live more optimally.

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain and Mental Health!

Click here to subscribe

Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

Connect with me

References:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12768648

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12521495/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2556849

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705176/

(5) http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/06/0956797612470827.abstract

(6) http://www.webmd.com/depression/vagus-nerve-stimulation#1

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990624/

(8) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160204111728.htm

(9) https://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/research-and-journals/new-non-invasive-form-of-vagus-nerve-stimulation-works-to-treat-depression

(10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11447037

(11) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18785356

(12) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705176/

(13) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3111147/

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12568274

(15) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12090812

(16) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2176143/

(17) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16641939

(18) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15750381

(19) http://www.bu.edu/news/2012/03/07/researchers-find-yoga-helps-ease-stress-related-medical-and-psychological-conditions/

(20) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18991518

(21) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3546358/

(22) http://healthland.time.com/2013/05/09/why-kindness-can-make-us-happier-healthier/?iid=hl-main-lead

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23649562

(24) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3099099/

(25) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21876150

(26) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3413724/

(27) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/

(28) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20948179

(29) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22314629

(30) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23962632

(31) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3133856/

(32) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2844909/

(33) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16581971

(34) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17326331

(35) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3217222/

(36) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16616012/

(37) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18461305

(38) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3483717/

(39) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17134636

(40) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3653417/

(41) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19158231

(42) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22664333

(43) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21939673

(44) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22673824

(45) https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/786839/

(46) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24359451

(47) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23649562

(48) http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797612470827

(49) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22894892

(50) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12959437

(51) http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever

(52) https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/743504/

(53) http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/118/8/863.long

(54) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_rate_variability

(55) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagal_tone

Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

Affiliate Disclosure

Disclaimer