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Tone Your Vagus Nerve For Better Sleep and Dreams

Is insomnia getting in the way of your lucid dreaming and dream recall practices? Targeting your vagus nerve through paced diaphragmatic breathing can help...

Trouble sleeping can interfere with lucid dreaming. A sufficient amount of sleep is necessary for lucid dreaming because you get most of your REM sleep, the stage of sleep when lucid dreams tend to occur, in the latter half of the night. A well-rested mind and body will also help you best focus on techniques for inducing and remembering lucid dreams.

Improving sleep hygiene and stimulus control, and developing sleep-promoting thoughts and behaviors can help you get the best sleep possible. Some sleep disorders and psychiatric conditions can mimic or worsen insomnia, so it's also important to diagnose and treat these if you are having trouble sleeping. Learning deep relaxation skills is another powerful way to help you drift to sleep quickly, particularly skills that efficiently target the vagus nerve.

Your Vagus Nerve

Your brain and body are most relaxed and best positioned for falling into restful sleep when your vagus nerve is activated.

The vagus nerve is the longest of your 12 cranial nerves, running from the brain through the heart to the gut. It is known for it's role in your "rest and digest," or parasympathetic, nervous system, and it regulates various bodily systems such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, and social behaviors.

The vagus nerve has an evolutionarily older component, called the "dumb" vagus, that influences dissociation, immobilization or "freeze" responses. The newer part of the vagus, called the "smart" vagus, helps you down-regulate stress and engage in social interactions effectively. The smart vagus circuit can be strengthened voluntarily to enhance your capacity for self-regulation and connection with others. Exercising your vagus nerve, and improving vagal "tone," can make you more flexible and adaptive in responding to cues in your environments. By "toning" your nervous system, you can buffer against stress and recover faster from it.

Heart Rate Variability

Your vagal tone can be measured by a rhythm in your heart, known as heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is not the same as your heart rate. Rather, it is an index of the intervals between your heart beats.

All people have an arrhythmia in their heart rate patterns: Your heart rate speeds up when you breathe in, and slows when you breathe out (also known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia). The larger and smoother these wave forms in your heart rhythm are, the more your vagus nerve is activated, and the more relaxed you will feel.

When you experience stress—ranging from major life challenges to everyday problem-solving—these wave forms become more compressed and erratic. Sustained compression of heart rate variability is generally a marker of poorer health and overall functioning.

Note the suppression and irregularity in heart rate variability when stressed, and the large, smooth peaks and valleys in heart rate variability during a positive mental state.

Unfortunately, stress in modern society tends to be chronic in nature, and many people stay stuck in a state of low vagal tone, which does not help them sleep well, and much less, vivaciously thrive in the world.

But by increasing your heart rate variability, your vagus nerve becomes more activated and responsive. This will help you manage all kinds of life issues better, including your ability to fall asleep quickly and deeply.

Resonant Frequency Breath Training

Breathing with your diaphragm at a slow pace and rhythm can enhance how much your heart rate accelerates and decelerates with each breath, improving the tone of your vagus nerve.

Most people breathe between 12-20 breaths per minute. With this technique, you slow your breathing rate to about 6 breaths per minute. This creates a resonance effect between your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, maximizing your heart rate variability.

This state often induces a feeling of ease, relaxation, a loosening of muscle tension, and if you are sleep-deprived, sleepiness. It can be practiced intermittently in the daytime to lower your baseline levels of stress, and as you strengthen your vagal tone, it can be applied to soothe and calm yourself whenever needed. The more you practice this breathing technique, the stronger and smarter this reflex of your vagus nerve can become.

Here's how you can learn this technique.

Breathe Like a Baby

The first step to learn resonant frequency breathing is to train yourself to breathe with your diaphragm so your abdomen expands with the inhale and deflates with the exhale.

Have you ever seen a newborn baby breathe? Infants do not yet have the ability to breathe shallowly in their chests because they lack tone in their accessory breathing muscles. Thus, little babies breathe entirely using their diaphragm, the muscle that separates your chest and abdominal cavities and helps you breathe automatically.

Most adults tend to chronically breathe shallow in their chest. This is a natural response to navigating higher levels of activity and stress in life. However, people still chest breathe even when they're not facing significant stressors, making their recovery from life's challenges more slow, or even absent.

Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly, and inhale. Does your chest rise when you breathe in? Or is your breath more centered on your diaphragm so your belly inflates when you inhale?

Diaphragmatic Breathing

To breathe with your diaphragm, allow the air to enter all the way to the bottoms of your lungs, so that your diaphragm pushes your belly out when you breathe in, and allows your belly to deflate when you breathe out. Make sure your chest stays completely still as you breathe abdominally.

For about one week, practice this for 10 minutes per day. Do this without slowing the pace of your breathing just yet.

Paced Breathing

Once you are comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, gradually slow your breathing rate until it reaches about 6 breaths per minute. This means you will eventually learn to inhale for 5 seconds, and exhale for 5 seconds. Or, you can inhale for 4 seconds, and exhale for 6 seconds.

Some find it more comfortable or relaxing to breathe at a slightly faster or slower rate than 6 breaths per minute. Experiment with different rates to find a pace that works for you. But keep in mind that, on average, most people achieve a state of resonance when breathing at 6 breaths per minute.

If you have difficulty slowing your breathing pace, then slow it only as much as you are comfortable. With time and practice, you can gradually and comfortably achieve a slower pace until you are breathing at a rate of ~6 breaths/minute.

Practice for at least 10 minutes consecutively every day.

Use Breath Pacers

A visual or audio pacer can help you focus on pacing your breathing better compared to counting the lengths of inhalations and exhalations. For visual pacers, inhale when the pacer ascends or expands, and exhale when the pacer descends or diminishes. If you use an audio pacer, inhale when the tones ascend, and exhale when the tones descend.

There are also home-training biofeedback devices, such as the emWave device by Heart Math, that can help you target and maximize your heart rate variability with more accuracy.

Breath pacers are great training tools. But ultimately, you will want to be able to pace your breathing intuitively on your own so you can easily apply this skill whenever needed.

Paced Breathing to Induce Sleep

When you are trying to fall asleep, apply the practice of paced breathing at ~ 6 breaths per minute. When this is applied in the context of good sleep habits, it can help you fall asleep faster.

Couple this technique with meditating on your senses, such as your breathing, without judging your experience. This will help you avoid thinking of things that can activate your brain too much and make it harder to fall asleep. In other words, you can induce positive, bottom-up (paced breathing) and top-down (meditation) influences on your nervous system to eliminate or reduce insomnia.

Daytime Diaphragmatic Breathing

It is best to set at least 10 minutes aside to formally practice paced diaphragmatic breathing during the day. This can reset, balance, and tone your nervous system in ways that positively influence your overall ability to navigate reality.

It can also help to engage in a less structured practice of diaphragmatic breathing. This works by becoming aware of your breath multiple times per day, and shifting your breath from your chest to your abdomen. You can do this at idle points, whenever you think of it, or if you notice your levels of stress and arousal are higher. Feel free to also slow the pace of your breathing, if that feels comfortable, for at least a few breaths.

This down-regulation of the nervous system can lower your baseline levels of stress and hyper-arousal. This not only helps your decision-making and functioning while awake, but it can make it easier to down-shift into a state of restful sleep at the end of the day.


Paced diaphragmatic breathing comes more easily to some than others. But committing to the practice and being patient can make your learning process smoother.

The following includes a few problems commonly observed in those new to the technique, and how to overcome them. Professionals that offer heart rate variability biofeedback therapy in your area may also be able to help you.


Some people feel lightheaded when they first start practicing paced breathing. If this happens to you, make sure you are lying down when you practice. It also can help to purse your lips when you breathe out to combat any dizziness. With practice, this feeling will eventually go away and breathing with your diaphragm will feel more natural and easy.

You can't breathe abdominally

You might discover that it is too hard for you to breathe such that your abdomen rises on the inhale instead of your chest. However, you should know that you already breathe with your diaphragm whenever you are in deeply relaxed states, such as when you are falling asleep or perhaps after you eat a big meal.

If you're still having trouble, don't give up. Instead, try practicing when you are laying down flat and already in a relaxed state. You will see that you naturally breathe abdominally when you are naturally relaxed. Once you feel more confident in your ability to breathe like this, practice the skill in other situations, too.

You don't feel relaxed

Most likely, you are not practicing paced breathing enough. Your vagal reflex is a bit like a muscle. You need to exercise it regularly and repetitively in order for it to get stronger. The rule of thumb is to practice paced diaphragmatic breathing at least 10 consecutive minutes per day. While this is usually enough to do the trick, sometimes people require 20 minutes of daily practice to notice results.

You also may discover it‘s difficult for you to remember to practice for long, or to find the time to practice at all. In that case, try scheduling this practice at points you will be likely to do it, such as at bedtime. You can also split your 10 minute goal into smaller chunks of time throughout the day. Practicing a few minutes occasionally is more helpful than not practicing at all.

You also might not be practicing the skill correctly. A frequently seen error is only practicing this technique when you are stressed in order to calm yourself down, which doesn’t work well if you haven’t mastered the skill yet. Instead, you should practice when you are already in a relatively relaxed state, which will allow you to stretch and strengthen this response in your vagus nerve best. Once this reflex gets stronger, you will be able to induce relaxation quickly whenever you apply the skill, including during times when you are more stressed.

Take-Home Points

To lucid dream, you need to sleep deeply and easily, and get enough sleep. If you struggle with insomnia, a potent technique for inducing relaxation and sleep is to train the rhythms of your vagus nerve, which is responsible for relaxing your mind and body.

Activating your vagus nerve can be achieved through a variety of relaxation techniques. Compared to most standard, relaxation techniques, diaphragmatic breathing at a 6 breaths/minute pace is more efficient at targeting and maximizing vagal activity, and thus, inducing states of relaxation and sleep. This is because paced breathing creates a resonance effect in your heart rate variability, an index of your vagal tone.

The technique is learned most effectively through professional biofeedback therapies. However, your learning can also be self-guided through education, the use of breathing pacers, and consistent practice.

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