The dubious TV commercial that offered, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” encouraged travel to Las Vegas for naughty deeds. Indeed, I wish that the details of my daughter’s bachelorette party in Vegas had stayed there.You might have noticed, though, that I speak of a different Vagus, a transatlantic cable of a nerve – see the anatomical drawing above – that similarly holds onto what happens to it.
The Vagus Nerve Holds Onto Stress
What it holds on to is, most simply, is stress. Vagus, the name of the 10th cranial nerve, comes from the same root as vagabond and this long nerve travels from your gut to your brain. We have no language in our gut, but 80-90% of the Vagus nerve is dedicated to sending ‘gut information” to your brain. (In the illustration, look at all the nerve endings among the viscera of your belly. This is why IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is exacerbated by the amount of stress we hold onto.)
Habituated to Stress
You might experience the sort of sticky stress that you can’t shake off: continuous worry, a startle response to certain sounds (like notifications on your phone?), premonitions of danger, holding muscles tightly. Over time, your Vagus nerve becomes habituated to this stress response. This is what happens when the nervous systems of soldiers, victims of 9/11, or holocaust survivors suffer from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But if you are a woman, over 50, like me, who has worked hard to simply get through your life, then you are likely, also, to be hanging on to too much stress.
Perhaps you’ve been raising children on your own, as I did. Perhaps you cared for a loved one through a long illness. Or, perhaps you’ve been juggling career and family. You might be struggling to keep going in spite of autoimmune diseases or undiagnosable, difficult symptoms. Simply chasing the conclusion of deadline projects can take into stress as well. These experiences contribute to a Vagus nerve that is stuck in stress.
The “Issues Are In the Tissues:” A Home for Trauma
According to trauma experts such as Bessel Van der Kolk and Peter A. Levine (see references below), when the Vagus nerve loses its resilience we become stuck in hyperarousal. The problem is not the events, perhaps even traumatic ones, that happened many years ago, but, the problem is the emotional residue that lives in our bodies, and in particular, in the Vagus nerve. As some say, “the issues are in the tissues.”
In what follows, I dive into a discussion of resilience vs. stress; I share a bit about my own stress-filled story; and, I offer three techniques for teaching your Vagus nerve to become more toned or resilient.
Resilience or Stress?
I want to share with you the fascinating story of how the Vagus nerve can work to provide resilience in our bodies or how it can encourage us to hold onto stress. The problem is that after slamming on the breaks, we often do not return to the calm that heals and sustains us. This is where stress has gone wrong and decided to take up housekeeping in our bodies.
I was a professor for 32 years and I proclaim here that I have earned my stress. I was very productive. I was successful, but I was not happy.
I thought that productive meant pushing myself to do more and to accomplish more. The word, resilience, was not in the common parlance and I never thought about it. Now, I pay more attention to resilience, which means holding myself fiercely to what my body tells me and responding with loving attention. This new approach requires a different kind of awareness.
When I was Productive, I Lived in my Head.
I used to think that’s where reality was. Now that I am well over 50 – in fact, much closer to 70 — I am fierce about paying attention to my body. When we listen to our bodies, our language gives us away: there are things we can’t stomach; we chew on a tough issue; we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Being fierce about resilience, can offer a reorientation and asks us to pay more attention to how we feel our bodies.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Our first response to being attacked is to act out: to run, to fight back, to shake it off (like our pets do), to duck or attempt to escape. Sometimes, however, we are immobilized – frozen in fear and this is especially where we hang onto stress. This stress response is tied to a branch of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system.
Here’s a personal example: I was raped during a home invasion many years ago. During the experience I was held down, frozen in fear. I imagined myself somewhere else (disassociation) , and this trauma stayed with me, in my body for many years, until I worked through the trauma with body-centered therapy. But until that time, every creaking door and every heavy footstep made me jump. And, as you can imagine, I was afraid of softening in intimate situations.
[And this is a good place for an important caveat. If you feel that your symptoms are not manageable, I encourage you to seek professional therapy.]
Rest and Digest
The good news is that the Vagus nerve can also be used to bring us back into a calm state called rest and digest, which is supported by the parasympathetic nervous system. Instead of blood rushing into our hands and feet to facilitate an escape from the saber-tooth tiger who is chasing us, the Vagus nerve, when trained to achieve resilience, can send blood and oxygen to our bellies allowing us to properly digest our food and rest calmly.
Are You Still With Me?
Clearly, even though you might have never heard of the Vagus nerve, it is very important to our well-being. It is a door way, or perhaps better described as a switch, between stress and resilience.
How to Flip the Vagus Nerve Switch
You might be surprised to know that your Vagus Nerve works in tandem with your heart and your breath. Can you feel your heart beating when you narrowly escape a car accident? Certainly, if you’ve ever had a panic attack, you can feel your heart pounding as though it will crash through your chest. This sort of habitual, shallow breathing can suggest sympathetic arousal – this is your fight, flight, or freeze response.
Let’s see what this feels like: Hunch forward, clench your fists, press your feet into the floor, and tighten every part of your body. Close your eyes and visualize a wild dog coming right at you. Release all of that and touch your middle finger to your thumb creating a circle and feel your heartbeat pulsing as your thumb and your middle finger touch. Now, hopefully, your nervous system reboots and you feel like yourself again. Problems arise when you cannot return to a sense of calm, where blood flows into your belly and you feel safe and sound.
Your Breath and Your Heart – This is It!
One of the most miraculous things about our bodies – in my opinion – is our breath. On any given day your breath just happens and you can’t stop it. It is automatic.
The fascinating thing, however, is that you can learn to control and manipulate your breath.
And, here’s the most important nugget I have to offer: what’s even more amazing is that by learning to control your breath you learn to speed up or slow down your heart.
When you speed up or slow down your heart, you learn to tone your Vagus nerve. When your Vagus nerve responds to trauma, its switch is stuck on “on.” We don’t want that. We want a lovely, flexible Vagus nerve that can speed up the heart when we sense danger and then shake it off and allow us to take a nap when we feel relaxed. One way to do that is by learning to use your breath. You see, your breath informs your heart and your heart informs your Vagus nerve.
You Want A Full and Free Breath: Three Techniques
Let’s play around with our breath. You can read my words or watch the video below.
Put your hands on your belly and let it relax. As women, we’ve unfortunately been taught to suck in our bellies to achieve a certain culturally desired look. But doing that wreaks havoc with our viscera and our Vagus nerve. It creates a holding pattern that our nervous system reads as stress. Think about that when you zip yourself into those super-tight jeans!
- Focus on the Exhale
Inhale and feel your belly expand into your hands. Then exhale and feel your belly deflate. Do this three times. Notice – does your inhale seem to stay up near your shoulders? Is one – the inhale or the exhale – more challenging? What are you experiencing?
But now – and this is the crucial part – to help your Vagus nerve transition back to “rest and digest” you want to focus on the exhale, making it long and slow.
Take note of the length of your inhale by counting and then, with ease, double the length of your exhale.
Most simply, your inhale speeds up your heart rate and your exhale slows your heart rate down. Most of us need, desperately, to modulate our breath in a way that helps us recover from stress.
2. Add a “Voo” Sound
Here is another fun way to use your breath to tone the Vagus nerve which I learned from trauma therapist, Peter A. Levine (see references below). This sound, a long, exhaled “voooo” comes from Tibetan chants. When you exhale, while chanting the “voooo” sound, direct your breath into your belly. In doing so, you create resonant tones in your lower belly: you open up your chest and your heart; and, you stimulate the serpentine branches of the Vagus nerve.
- Hug, Hum, and Rock with Breath and the “Voo” Sound
This lovely practice could be said to embody holding yourself fiercely and speaking to yourself with love. There are two ways to do it: with yourself, or with another human being or with your dear pet. Simply hold your arms around you in a hug. You can stand, sit, or lie down. Rock back and forth and as you exhale and chant the “voooo” sound long and slow. You can also do this with another person or your dear pet. I learned this technique from Devi Stern, an Eden Energy practitioner, at www.dragonflyhealer.com.
Here is a video that demonstrates the three ways to tone the Vagus nerve:
I hope you have enjoyed this spotlight and if you’ve gotten to this point, you really should congratulate yourself.
I am committed to speaking to women who are #fierceover50 and who want to live differently in the second half of their lives. I blog (for free) online and offer both live and recorded courses through my website, www.annmerle.com.
If you want to know more about what I am doing, please go to my website and sign up for my free blog, where I keep you apprised of all that is going on in my world. I’d love for you to join my tribe.
Levine, Peter A. Ph.D. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 2010.
Van der Kolk, Bessel, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Books, 2014.
Content provided by Women Belong member AnnMerle Feldman