Recently I have been visiting a new health care provider. At my first visit, he seized on the fact that I was stuck in a state of fight or flight – trauma brain – and prescribed deep diaphragmatic breathing twice daily.
I wasn’t surprised. Through multiple falls and my highly sensitive nature, I merely accepted this as a part of me. What struck me was how quickly he was able to see this within me. While I can’t claim my life has radically shifted and my movement disorder has totally resolved, I do feel different in my skin.
All of this work brought me to think about what else I can do to “calm” down and soothe in healthy ways. Much of my thinking led me to the vagus nerve and how it is impacted in times of stress and trauma.
What Is the Vagus Nerve and why is it important?
The vagus nerve originates in the brain. It’s path as it leaves the base of the brain sends branches to the ears, the throat, the heart, the lungs, and the digestive tract, with stops along the way at the vocal cords and the diaphragm, before descending into the abdomen. The vagus nerve is the key player in the autonomic nervous system controlling your internal organs.
This nerve contributes to a racing heart when you sense a threat and why breathing slows and relaxes when pleasing memories are present. It is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which, along with the sympathetic nervous system, constitutes the autonomic nervous system. Ideally these two systems act synergistically to create homeostasis.
Containing both sensory and motor fibers, the vagus nerve is in charge of sensations and movement. It controls swallowing and speech. It carries the sense of taste and sensations felt by the ears. It is responsible for involuntary muscle and gland control of the viscera, encompassing the heart, the lungs, the esophagus, and the rest of the digestive tract. It controls breathing and heart function, including heart rate.
The vagus nerve helps regulate digestion and is one of the main channels of connection between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract. Among many other actions, it ferries to the brain signals generated by the metabolic actions of the gut bacteria on specific types of food—one means by which diet plays an important role in mental health. The vagus nerve also conveys signals of the digestive tract; among the best known are those that control appetite. The vagus nerve also contributes to the immune defense of the gut.
States of visceral calm get relayed up to the brainstem, which then transmits the information to more highly evolved brain structures, allowing full access to the brain’s means of expression and enabling social interaction—which has the effect of perpetuating the state of neural calm. But in potential danger states, those higher systems turn off and we become defensive and on high alert, preparing us to fight or flee—the stress response.
Because the vagus nerve operates bi-directionally, states of homeostasis and calm can be induced from the bottom up or the top down. That is, the brain can deploy cognitive and other strategies to dissipate states of bodily unease (top down), or it can activate the vagus nerve at a number of points in its path to create psychological comfort and a sense of safety (bottom up).
As more research is being conducted about achieving a mind-body connection to increase health, it’s becoming clear that a well-functioning vagus nerve is key in the cardiac response to stress.
When a person has high vagal tone, their bod returns to a baseline resting state fairly quickly. If there is a struggle to achieve calmness after experiencing anxiety or stress, then you most likely have a lower vagal tone.
Calming the Nervous System
Vagus nerve exercises target areas of the body that these nerves travel through, by stimulating vibrations to trigger and balance the nervous system. This can be done through exercises that lead to relaxation and awareness. I encourage you to try the following exercises:
- Singing, chanting, humming, bee breath ( a favorite )
- Establishing good gut health
- Massage (i.e. gently massaging the face around the eyes, jaw, neck, and ears)
- Diaphragmatic Breathing: making your exhalations longer than your inhalations (i.e. inhale through the nose to a count of 3, hold, exhale through the mouth for 6, add a whoosh or ahhhh sounds for extra
- Cold Exposure
- There are also Neck Exercises you can perform. Search for vagus nerve toning. I particularly like those combining head with eye movements. Here is an example you can follow – https://youtu.be/L1HCG3BGK8I
The key is to find modalities you can get yourself to do on a regular basis and repeat them as you need. Daily is good!