Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
I am so inspired by Stanley Rosenberg’s work on the Vagus nerve and the new medicine on Polyvagal Theory. Polyvagal theory acknowledges a new fuller complexity of the Vagus Nerve and its importance in the proper functioning of the autonomic nervous system. It also links the proper functioning of the autonomic nervous system with our ability to connect and to have positive and fulfilling relationships.
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves. It originates in the brain stem.
The well- known dorsal (lower branch) innervates the digestive system, the bladder and kidneys and the sexual organs whilst the (new- lesser known) dorsal branch helps in the control of the heart and lungs.
Our autonomic nervous system is linked to our animal instincts; it bypasses the logical part of the brain and is innervated by the primitive (animal) part of the brain. This means that our fight/flight/freeze responses are the same as any animals.
Fight/ Flight / Freeze
In the fight and flight response, our adrenals give us the ability for aggression whilst mobilising the muscular system to run. In the freeze response, which comes in a more extreme situation when our mortality appears threatened, we shut down and immobilise (in readiness to be killed!) If this is not the case and the treat leaves us, we would naturally shake and release the shock from our system before getting on with life.
In a more primitive hunter gatherer situation, we would have followed these instincts, carrying out our true nature to fight, run or freeze accordingly. The physical movement involved releases the shock from the body. The nervous system then brings us back to a place of homeostasis or the relax response.
What Happens In Daily Life.
In our modern society, we mostly don’t have the opportunity for movement. We don’t allow ourselves to shout and get angry, we don’t get up from our chairs and run out into the streets when we feel triggered.
We may be at work in the office or sitting around a table with friends. The trigger may come through a conversation; words triggering memory, bypassing our logic and setting off an instinctual response; a chain reaction in our nervous systems. We might have a shock; see an accident whilst driving or be startled by a loud noise. Any of these situations can create an autonomic nervous system response; to fight/ flight or freeze.
In these situations we might simply remain sitting, go take a coffee or have a drink to calm our nerves. We might discuss it with our partner when we get home. But how many times do we have the opportunity or allow ourselves to react in the natural way? How many times is it relevant to do so? Not many.
This “in-action” creates stress in the body. And stress impairs the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. This stress can cause the Vagus nerve to “switch of”; leaving us in a fight /flight or freeze state. In this state, functioning of our body systems is in-paired; we may experience problems with digestion, elimination, sexuality or in the case of the dorsal branch; heart rate, insomnia, breathing difficulties.
Emotionally we become disconnected. Unable to be present and relate fully with others. We may feel restless, anxious or unable to rest. Or we might feel depressed (shut down) and stagnant.
In this disconnection it is difficult to form positive relationships of any kind. We are in a state of “alert” or “shut down” whilst looking out for a perceived threat.
Working with The Vagus Nerve
Working with the Vagus nerve to keep it “switched on” and therefore to help the autonomic nervous system to come back to a state of rest, I think is a revolutionary route to self -development. Its simple to do. I’ve been practicing these exercises for about 6 weeks and I feel more engaged with life and able to release stress more easily.
Reports from clients are positive with feedback ranging from feeling more grounded and embodied to having more energy and feeling more relaxed. It’s also helped to reduce headaches for one man and digestive issues for a woman with diverticulitis.
The Basic Exercise
1. Interlace the fingers, cupping the hands behind your head. Now lift a little to engage with the atlas and axis and lean back into your hands.
2. Look right and wait for a change. This might be a yawn or a sigh or simply a feeling that something has changed.
3. Look left and wait for a change.
Shoulder, Head and Neck pain.
The 11th cranial nerve and the trapezius and SCM muscles.
Mostly our muscular system is controlled by spinal nerves. However the trapezius and the SCM are controlled by the 11th cranial nerve and work closely with the vagal nerve.
They are also connected to our fight, flight, freeze response and to social engagement.
Trapezius Twist and Turn Exercise
1. Fold your arms at waist height and swing (twisting) from side to side 3 times.
N.B as you do this allow your whole body to twist from the waste up, so that you end up looking behind you.
2. Fold your arms at chest height and swing three times from side to side.
3. Fold your arms above your head and swing three times from side to side.