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As a clinical psychologist, life coach, and yoga teacher with a specialism in trauma-based presentations, I am often having to explain to clients how the stress response in the body is triggered and calmed.
Over years of practice, my own understanding of this has evolved and continues to evolve as more and more research becomes evident.
Some of the current day knowledge I explore here is supported by the physique of the world’s smallest bird, the Hummingbird (which happens to be the chosen name for my health and well-being business).
People often struggle to think seemingly simple interventions such as breathwork and yoga for stress can be life-changing. Humans seek complexity. However, once this is linked to biology and science, it generally becomes a more palatable option for many. I offer here a narrative that I share with those I work with, which explains aspects of the brain-body connection and the strength of this link.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls automatic functions over which we have little conscious control. For example, heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, and the subconscious aspect of breathing. The ANS contains three main elements: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the enteric nervous system (ENS).
The SNS is responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction to danger, our survival mechanism. Our lungs inflate and the heart diverts blood from organs to muscles to get us moving to escape perceived dangers. The body is then flooded with oxygen, which releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The ENS is responsible for how the intestines function (although digestion has a few more complexities); it communicates with the central nervous system (CNS).
The PNS calms the body down. I refer to this as the “paratroopers swooping in to save the day.” Bodily resources are rediverted back to the organs allowing digestion to come back online.
The vagus nerve is like a telecommunications hub that keeps all these systems in touch with each other. It has been termed the self-care nerve and it holds the key to many conditions that arise as a result of our busy lifestyles. Vagus means “traveller” in Greek. It moves around the body passing through all our major systems (cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive) and making itself aware of what is happening.
If we spend too much time in the “fight or flight” system, this is detrimental to the vital organs. According to Dr. Kathleen Ogle, “When the vagus nerve is overstimulated in this way, to an extreme, the body’s blood vessels dilate, especially those in the lower extremities, and the heart temporarily slows down. The brain is deprived of oxygen, causing the person to lose consciousness.”
The research on the vagus nerve implicates the whole body and provides strong evidence for the brain-body connection. Gut bacteria have been shown to trigger vagus nerve responses. So what we eat can also negatively impact our vagal tone, which is how well the vagus nerve can be stimulated. This is the speed, strength, and efficacy of its response, measured by electrocardiograms that evaluate the differential between heart rate during out and in breaths. A high differential suggests a high vagal tone. This regulates blood sugars more effectively and lowers the risk of diabetes and vascular diseases. Low tone is linked to high stress and chronic inflammation. Positive emotions are also found to positively impact our vagal tone.
The difficulty we have in how the system works is that the SNS cannot tell the difference between physical and psychological triggers to distress. It is unclear if a lion is trying to kill us or if someone has pushed in front of us at the checkout. Both could evoke the same response in some people with chronic trauma or stress. Modern lifestyles can put us in a persistent state of “fight or flight.”
Speaking of flight, despite being the tiniest of creatures, Hummingbirds have the fastest heart rate. Faster heart rates usually lead to shorter life spans, but this does not impact this species. The reason is thought to be due to the fact they vibrate at 50 Hz as they hover. This creates resonance that positively impacts the vagus nerve.
They teach us that by stimulating the vagus nerve, we can trigger the PNS to calm the body down. This sends a call to action to enzymes for digestion to enable us to absorb nutrients (a fast track to the rest and digest feeling the body has when not stressed). Blood pressure is then lowered and the immune system is optimised.
Learning to control the vagus nerve reduces anxiety and controls the body’s inflammatory responses (key to many chronic pain conditions). This slows the impact of aging, as cells are protected and can potentially regenerate.
Nerve stimulators (that use electrical currents) have helped people with Migraine and Epilepsy. They have also been used to manage symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, Depression and Obesity (Mosquieria et al., 2013).
Noninvasive ways to stimulate the nerve are:
- Stimulating the nerve through Carotid Sinus massage, which can reduce heart rate and has stopped some seizures (Green et. al 2014).
- Certain yoga-based techniques can feed psychological information backwards to the brain via the vagus nerve. As physical information can influence psychological reaction and can bring us out of the “fight or flight” position. Techniques such as calming pranayama (breath work) and calm repetitive movements in asanas (poses) can also feed psychological information “backwards” to the brain via the vagus nerve. These techniques tell the brain that all is well and calm and there is no need for stress.
- Humming and rhythmic chanting used in meditative techniques has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (Kalyani et al., 2011). Sounds expressed and heard through headphones in both ears triggers the PNS.
- Combining humming and breathing techniques. Taking deep slow nasal breaths and hum as you breathe out. Focus on the vibration of the hum in your ribs, throat, mouth, and head. Communal chants, singing, and gargling also help.
- When heart rate is high, it can be brought down by putting your face into icy water for half to a full minute. This triggers something called the “diving reflex” and the heart slows down to conserve oxygen. Feelings of anxiety, stress, panic, and inflammation are helped. It can also elevate mood. Placing ice cubes on the scalp line and lips helps too.
- Centering, grounding, and calming can be achieved via meditation. Techniques can be active with walking meditations or more passive visualisations, or focus-based methods. Finding your best approach may take some time. When consistently practised, vagal tone improves.
The vagus nerve is essentially your protector; it is your “gut feel.” Stress damages its functionality, which impacts your whole system. Health and well-being strengthen functionality. Stimulating functionality positively correlates with health and well-being improvements. It would seem therefore that the moral of the story is to never gamble in vagus and to invest wisely in its upkeep.
If you live a life that maximises your vagal tone, you will live longer.
Not only will you be alive, but you will essentially thrive.