Trauma, Stress, & the Vagus Nerve
Polyvagal Theory is a theory that focuses on the vagus nerve having a significant role in emotional regulation, social connection, and fear response. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a system within our bodies that has two components. The first component is the sympathetic nervous system, that triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response when a danger or threat is present. The second component is the parasympathetic nervous system response that helps us rest and digest, after the danger or threat has passed. This is important to understand when you have experienced trauma, as the ANS can become imbalanced leading to issues both physiologically and psychologically.
The vagus nerve makes up a large part of your parasympathetic nervous system. This nerve consists of 3 main branches, traveling down from the brain, neck, chest, abdomen, and both sides of the body. The parasympathetic response is regulated largely by the vagus nerve. It contributes to digestion and immune response. Therefore, chronic stress and trauma can negatively impact this nerve leading to issues with your internal processes.
Considering the vagus nerve contributes to regulation of many areas of the body at rest, it is imperative for individuals to increase awareness of the mind-body connection. If you struggle with PTSD, then your autonomic nervous system is more often stuck in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, despite being at rest. Therefore, your parasympathetic response of rest and digest is malfunctioning.
More research is being conducted and taught in the mental health community about achieving a mind-body connection to increase healthy functioning of the vagus nerve and how it can be helpful in individual’s healing journeys. Vagal tone is the measure of the cardiac response to stress. If the vagal tone level is low or high, this impacts how quickly your body can return to calm after the sympathetic nervous system is triggered (fight, flight, or freeze). When a person has a high vagal tone, this enables their body to return to a baseline resting, calm, state fairly quickly. If you struggle to achieve calmness after experiencing anxiety/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 travels through, by stimulating vibrations to trigger and balance the nervous system. This can be done through mind-body connection exercises that lead to relaxation and awareness. If you will benefit from improving your vagal tone or stimulating your vagus nerve (convincing your brain that your body is not in danger and can return to calm), I encourage you to try the following exercises:
Singing, chanting (Om’ing), or humming
Massage (i.e. gently massaging the face around the eyes, jaw, neck, and ears)
Deep Breathing: making your exhalations longer than your inhalations (i.e. inhale through nose with a count of 3, hold, exhale through mouth for a count of 6 with a whoosh or ahhhh sounds
Cold Exposure (i.e. immersing your face in cold water)
Gently moving your head and eyes from side, to center, to side (an example of this exercise can be found at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cbC2Tto2UM )
If you are interested in reading more about the vagus nerve, I recommend the book “Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism” by Stanley Rosenberg.
Written by: Alex Coulter