I often wonder how I would have experienced and responded to my body differently had I been taught anatomy as a child, or perhaps even more radical, embodied anatomy. Would I have handled shin splints with more ease as a teenager playing basketball? How would I have responded to stress and anxiety during university and then at an office job? As an adult, through meditation, dance and then a career change to a bodyworker, I have expanded my understanding of anatomy and developed how I experience and inhabit my body. This development of embodied anatomy has most definitely affected how I respond to and perceive injuries, stress, and emotions. So why learn anatomy? For me, it gives a way in and through physical sensations whether they’re perceived as negative, positive, or neutral. It empowers me to engage with my felt sense experience and be with my body in a more attuned way.
In this blog post, we’ll focus on the Vagus Nerve. I’ll share some basic anatomy (it is a highly complex nerve) as well as some exercises and tools to use in daily life. Interacting with the vagus engages self-soothing and regulatory abilities. Thus, it’s a perfect system to connect with given the current complexity of our lives in 2020.
Vagus Nerve : A Basic Anatomy Overview
- A wandering cranial nerve, the vagus is the longest and (some say the) most complex nerve of our nervous system. It has a vast array of functions and is suitably called “a superhighway between our body and brain”.
- While the vagus has both motor (efferent) and sensory (afferent) functions, 80% of its innumerable fibers are sensory; thus it brings a massive amount of information from our body to our brain! Perhaps a more apt analogy is a one-way super highway to our brain, and a one way suburban street from our brain to our periphery.
- The parasympathetic (rest and digest, conserve and restore) and the sympathetic (fight and flight) branches of our nervous systems have supportive roles. Akin to yin and yang they are: opposites, interdependent, and support and transform each other. Around 75% of the parasympathetic nervous fibers are vagus nerve fibers and thus are vital in how we rest and restore energy.
“Vagus Nerves regulate several physiological activities; e.g., they regulate the heart rate and blood pressure, mediate esophageal swallowing and gastric emptying, control stomach acid secretion, influence the motility of the gall bladder and biliary tract, and the motility of the intestines”Bonaz, Picq, Sinniger, Mayol, & Clarençon, 2013
Vagus Nerve: Functions and Roles
The vagus has a role in most major functions from speaking, swallowing, heart rate, breathing, digesting, and immune response, to how we respond to social cues! The vagus nerve…
- Brings information from our organs to our brain including: heart, lungs, liver and gut
- Creates reflex actions such as sneezing, coughing, swallowing, and vomiting
- Stimulates salivation, digestion, and bowel movement
- Decreases heart rate and blood pressure
- Initiates immune response functioning as anti-inflammatory, especially in the brain-gut axis
- Coordinates responses to external and internal stressors by interacting with the HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis 2
- “Supports our ability to engage socially with others, connecting the cranial nerves associated with the face, voice, and ears with the heart, lungs, and gut. It enhances our ability to create appropriate facial cues, like smiling, and improves our hearing and our verbal fluency. “ Jennifer Wright, Clinical Psychologist
Tips and Tools
Armed with that anatomy and basic understanding of what functions are powered by and involved with the vagus nerve, let’s move onto a few exercises.
1. The Pathway Pull
In this video we’ll review experientially the vagus nerve pathway and its functions. By palpating the pathway, we integrate the understanding of its anatomy as well as invite our body to down regulate and move into restoration and relaxation through touch.
“Since, the vagal tone is correlated with capacity to regulate stress responses and can be influenced by breathing, its increase through meditation and yoga likely contribute to resilience and the mitigation of mood and anxiety symptoms.”Breit, Kupferberg, Rogler, & Hasler, 2018
2. Breathing Techniques
Good ol’ diaphragmatic breathing, this practice is ageless and there are many breathing techniques and exercises. Healthy breathing is often inhibited by bad posture, fascial tension, and other tissue patterns. Practicing breathing with awareness and focus can not only help shift the above patterns, it also is a direct way into engaging our vagal tone.
There are a TON of videos and methods out there, no need to invent anything new here. However, it’s often supportive to use a guided invitation. Here are a few options that are quick, effective and easy to use:
1 Minute Video from Headspace: Mini meditation | Breathe
3 Minute Video from Ventuno Yoga: 3 Most Effective Pranayamas
5 Minute Video with Andrew Weil: How to Perform the 4-7-8 Breathing
3. More ways in!
Next time you find yourself in a state of upregulation, for example, you feel your heart racing, your eyes tracking, and/or muscles clenching, try one of these.
- Listen to music, especially one with an unobtrusive beat and slower rhythm.
- Hum your favorite tune! Whether you’re driving your car, washing your dishes, or moving through an argument with a loved one, humming (which also activates more conscious breathing) can initiate nervous system regulation.
- Nature walk. Head outside, walk around, and invite your thoughts to come into the simplicity of the moment- notice the colors, smell, and the unfolding scene around you.
- Healthy diet and happy digestion. The research is very clear, gut health is brain health (is body health!). Vagal fibers are dense in our gut thus having a healthy diet and decreasing inflammatory foods, supports vagal health. This is obviously a huge topic, if you find yourself in an unhealthy eating habit, start simple. What’s one healthy eating habit you can incorporate?
When to Use These Exercises?
The truth is that daily habits are the most powerful way to stay on top of self-regulation and feeling resourced. Daily practices of deep breathing, healthy diet, connection to nature, and embodied movement – with your voice and/or play- all engage directly with vagal health! Practicing daily allows the tools to be more influential when you’re having a less-than-resourced time (as the neural and muscular pathways are already developed), it also creates less resistance to doing them in a difficult moment. One has to start somewhere, however, invite gentleness with yourself when trying new tools and starting habits, use curiosity versus guilt. That being said, even if these tools don’t become daily habits, using them in times of elevated stress, anxiety, and/or pain can help shift out of a perceived negative experience, into a more regulated state.
Self-soothing and self-care are natural and necessary abilities and aspects of being human. Utilizing and interacting with our body with an awareness of its anatomy and physiology, can strengthen and deepen our abilities to restore and heal. Remember, the vagus nerve has a hand in digestion, immune response, sleep (rest and restore), and heart rate and has a multitude of ways to engage with it… have fun, be courageous and curious in your self-care through your vagus nerve.