Welcome back to Sleepless Nights, Stylist’s weekly series designed to help you swap your anxiety and worries for a good night’s sleep. This week, we’re exploring whether ‘vagus nerve icing’ is an effective tool for easing anxiety before bed.
Over the past two years, TikTok has become many people’s go-to source for all kinds of tips, tricks and hacks on a wide range of topics, including mental health.
While watching videos on social media is obviously no substitute for professional mental health advice and treatment, the platform is still home to a number of useful techniques and coping mechanisms that many people have found to be helpful.
One such ‘hack’ that’s been trending on the platform recently is ‘vagus nerve icing’ to ease anxiety. The technique, which was originally outlined in a video made by user Frankie Simmons (@heyfrankiesimmons) at the end of August, has made its way into the posts of numerous creators over the last couple of months.
With Simmons claiming that vagus nerve icing can offer anxiety-reducing benefits within 15 minutes, it’s safe to say we were intrigued to learn more about this new approach.
But what actually is vagus nerve icing? How does it work? And is it actually an effective way to reduce anxiety? Let’s take a closer look.
What is vagus nerve icing?
As @heyfrankiesimmons explains in her original video, vagus nerve icing simply involves laying a cold compress or ice pack on your chest to ease anxiety.
“A couple of years ago it was a very regular occurrence for me to wake up at 4am with anxiety – all the time,” she explains in the video. “I’d have to pull myself out of bed and do all of this breathwork and energy work and tea drinking and spend like forever trying to calm myself down to go back to sleep. And all that changed the day I learned about icing your vagus nerve.”
As Simmons goes on to highlight, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, and plays an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system – the system responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ or calm state.
In this way, Simmons claims, applying cold to your vagus nerve “stimulates it” and helps it to function better, calming you down and reducing feelings of anxiety.
“You can do this by taking ice-cold showers [or] by taking dips in ice-cold lakes, but if you want to save yourself the discomfort, just put an ice pack on the center of your chest,” she says. “Wrap it in a towel, put it [in the centre of your chest] and lie down for at least 15 minutes – longer if you need to – watch TikToks and do whatever you were going to do anyway, and it is a game-changer.”
Simmons continues: “I swear, when I found this, an hour and a half of trying to calm myself down to go back to sleep when I woke up at 4am turned into 15 minutes.
“I didn’t even have an ice pack at the time – I would just go to the freezer get a pack of frozen peas, put it between my boobs I’d be back out in no time. It changed my life – I want everybody to know about this magic.”
Is vagus nerve icing an effective way to reduce anxiety? What’s the science behind it?
To find out more about whether vagus nerve icing is an effective tool for easing anxiety, we spoke to Anne-Sophie Fluri, a neuroscientist and head of mindfulness at the wellness education platform MindLabs.
According to Fluri, using an ice pack to cool your vagus nerve is just one way to improve your vagal ‘tone’, which allows your body to “rebound and relax” faster after a stressful event or situation.
“You can do this through deep breathing exercises, meditation, singing, or – in the case of this TikTok – through cold exposure,” she explains. “Cold exposure, like icing your chest, face or taking cold showers, will activate the cholinergic neurons of the vagal pathway, releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which tells young lungs to breathe, and your body to chill out.”
Fluri continues: “So, by stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and destress. For many people, it can really help when they experience panic.”
Fluri adds that, the better you get at activating your vagus nerve (aka, through regular stimulation), the easier it will be for you to calm down quickly when you’re placed under stress. “In the long run, this has huge implications for overall mood levels, stress levels, feelings of wellbeing and emotional resilience,” Fluri says.
So, there you have it. While vagus nerve icing may not be the most commonly-used way to reduce anxiety, it’s based in some pretty solid science – and could offer some benefits in the long-run, too.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support.
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