Chronic stress and trauma contribute majorly to physical, mental and emotional diseases. The reason for that is because both stress and trauma lead to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system and correlate with poor Vagus nerve tone (think of the Vagus nerve as the CEO of the autonomic nervous system).
Importantly, trauma is a somatic experience, not an event. In other words, it’s not about what happens to us, it’s about how we experience it (i.e. how we “embody” it). Thus, the same event can prove very traumatic for one person, while someone else might be totally fine with it. The experience itself is recorded (embodied) as a physiological response (with or without a corresponding psychological imprint) and can have a long-term dysregulating effect on our autonomic nervous system. Interestingly enough, traumatic experiences can be passed down through several generations, so we can be dealing with a nervous system dysregulation as a result of someone in our lineage having experienced trauma.
Similarly, chronic stress also leads to nervous system dysregulation and poor Vagal tone. We experience chronic stress when we constantly worry (about paying the bills, losing a close one, getting sick, not being loved, not being fulfilled in our personal life or career, etc.). Again, it’s not about the situation we are in, it’s about how we see and embody it. Thus, the same situation can be considered a stressful experience by one person and a beneficial opportunity by another. Consequently, these two people will have very different autonomic nervous system responses (the first one going towards disease and the second one staying healthy and resilient).
On the face of it, it’s important for all of us to “tone” the Vagus nerve as that not only helps release trauma and stress already stored in the body but it also improves our autonomic nervous system resilience (so we can deal with future stress in a more empowered way). Subjectively, improved Vagal tone correlates with release of neck and back pain, better digestion, improved mood and sleep, inner peace and calm, weight loss, and much more.
Now, before we get to the actual exercises that help tone the Vagus nerve, let’s look at the Vagus itself and understand how it works. The Vagus nerve has three main functions: the parasympathetic – rest, digest, connect and socialize; the sympathetic – mobilize, fight or flee; and the dorsal – freeze, paralyze, depress (called dorsal because the corresponding branch of the Vagus nerve goes to the back).The parasympathetic mode is the relaxed state. The other two are states of stress with the sympathetic being the healthier one of the two since we are at least able to do something about our stress, i.e. we are mobilized and able to take action. Admittedly though, the sympathetic is the also the state in which we gain the most weight (because of cortisol and insulin elevation). Lastly, the “freeze” mode can be very dangerous as it paralyzes us and we get depressed, despondent, disconnected, disengaged, withdrawn and unable to do much. Back pain and neck stiffness as well as mood disorders often (though not always) correlate with this freeze mode.
Of course all three states of the autonomic nervous system are needed and each one can be beneficial depending on the circumstances. The important thing is that we flow from one state into another in a flexible way. Resilience is all about being able to move through those states as needed (instead of staying stuck in any one of them), and that’s precisely what the exercises for Vagal tone aim at.
Crucially, the Vagus connects the brain and the gut and this communication is bi-directional with only 20% of the information going from the brain to the gut and the other 80% of information flowing from the gut to the brain. Hence, we can appreciate the importance of maintaining optimal gut health for the autonomic nervous system functioning but equally we can understand how autonomic nervous system dysregulation can disrupt digestive functions.
With that said here are some simple techniques to tone the Vagus nerve which can help you release stress, trauma and pain and amplify your flexibility and resilience in the face of future stress. Use these simple exercises instead of abusing alcohol, food, drugs or caffeine to cope.
- The 5-2-8 breathing: breathe in for 5, hold for 2, and exhale to the count of 8.
- Eye movement: keep your head straight and move your eyes to the right for 30 seconds; then bring the eyes briefly to the center and move them to the left for another 30 seconds.
- Massage and stretch your ears as well as behind the ears.
- Splash cold water on your face.
- Take a cold shower.
- Gargle, sing and hum.
- Laugh, stretch, meditate, and listen to calming music.
- Eat right for your gut and never go to bed on a full stomach.