What is the Vagus nerve and why is it so important for our well-being?
The stresses of the last 18 months have tested our resilience and challenged our mental health. Many of my clients are reporting that they are suffering from anxiety, even those who have never suffered from mental health issues in the past.
To understand why this is happening, we need to look at what happens to our bodies when we encounter a stressful situation.
Fight or flight response
We have all heard of the fight or flight response, but what actually happens to our bodies during this response? When our brain senses a threat, it triggers this response, which is critical for our survival if the threat is about to attack us. Our Sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid and blood pressure increases, in order to provide the energy required to fuel a rapid response to the danger. Our muscles become tense and primed for action, sometimes resulting in trembling or shaking.
Once the danger has passed, this stress response ends and our Parasympathetic nervous system takes over, calming the body, and returns us to a state of peace.
What happens when the threat has no definitive ending, such as the pandemic which continues for months with no end in sight? For many people this can lead to significant health consequences, as the stress response is prolonged, unless we can find ways to sooth our nervous system.
Professor of Psychiatry Stephen Porges has identified that the Parasympathetic nervous system has 2 parts, each causing a different response- the Dorsal Vagal nerve network and the Ventral Vagal nerve network.
If we are unable to resolve a threat through the fight or flight reaction- and with a pandemic we are unable to fight it or run away from it- our body may decide to physically and mentally ‘check out’. This is called ‘dissociation’ and is activated by the Dorsal Vagal nerve network. In this state we feel powerless and helpless, and this often leads to depression.
Connecting with another person however, activates the Ventral Vagal nerve network (also called the social engagement system), triggering a feeling of calm. It is this part of the nervous system that we want to activate when we are stressed, and recent research shows us that we are able to tune into our nervous systems to bring our bodies back to a ‘rest and digest’ state.
The Ventral Vagal network runs upwards from the diaphragm area to the brainstem, crossing over nerves in the lungs, neck, throat and eyes. Actions in these parts of the body, i.e. deep breaths, humming, smiling or making eye contact with someone, sends signals to the brain that it is safe to responsible for logical thinking. Thus, by calming ourselves we are able to think more clearly and logically, which helps to further reduce stress and helps us to cope better with the situation.
How can we activate the Ventral Vagal nervous network?
Step 1- Tune in to how your body feels.
If you don’t know how your body feels when it is stressed, it’s difficult to recognise when you need to rest and relax. Notice how your body feels when you are calm- your ‘base-line’- and you will be able to notice the subtle ways that stress affects you physically and be able to react to this, for example by relaxing a tense jaw or shoulders.
Step 2- Use your breath.
When your body is in a stressed state you are likely to be breathing rapidly and in a shallow way. Deep breathing in a mindful way is a very effective way to self-regulate, as the Vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords. Making the exhale longer than the inhale is particularly effective.
Step 3 – Connect with people, or give yourself ‘compassionate attention’.
Get together with people who make you feel good and have a meaningful conversation. Even if you can’t meet in person have a video call when you can so that you can make eye contact, or just have a good old-fashioned natter on the phone. Or just indulge yourself in a good book, do some gentle yoga or enjoy a warm bath. This gives your body cues that it is safe to relax.
Step 4 – Reframe negative thoughts.
How you interpret a stressful situation determines how your body will respond. For example, if you are stuck in the house due to isolating, reframe it in your mind as an opportunity to slow down and take a rest. Trying to find a positive in a negative situation sends messages to your Vagus nerve to calm your body down.
Step 5 – Be present in the moment.
Try to spend less time stressing about the past which you cannot change, and worrying about the future which has not yet happened. Bring yourself back to the present moment by using your 5 senses. Go outside, look at the trees, listen to the birds, smell the flowers, stroke a pet, take time to taste your food. These simple ‘grounding’ activities activate your Ventral Vagal nerve network, making you feel safer in the moment. This will give you more energy and resources to respond in a more balanced way when you need to.
Step 6 – Invest in professional therapies
Having a regular treatment such as Reflexology, Massage, Acupuncture, Reiki or Aromatherapy, will also help to activate the Ventral Vagal nerve network, and help to keep you feeling more relaxed and balanced.
If you are suffering from stress and anxiety, why not book in for a free Well-being Review with me, Tracey Turton, and find out how my Wellbeing programmes can support you on your journey back to health and vitality.