Hack Your Nervous System

Last week I wrote about how our nervous systems have been on high alert for quite some time. This week I wanted to talk about some things we can do about it. Therefore, we're going to talk about my favorite nerve, the vagus nerve!



What is the Vagus Nerve?


The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that controls our autonomic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that helps regulate our homeostasis, which is a state of balance within our body when everything is functioning as it should. It's a state of stability in our bodies. There are a lot of systems that work together to get us there, mostly controlled by the vagus nerve.


You may have heard the terms "fight or flight" and "rest and digest." This is what the autonomic nervous system controls by way of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. However, we now know the system is a bit more complicated than having just two states of being. We are not limited to either being stressed or relaxed.


According to the Polyvagal Theory, our balanced state is actually a state which supports social engagement. When we feel safe, we are able to utilize higher levels of brain function which enables social interaction, appropriate self-soothing, and feelings of love and friendship. By coming together, we thrive as a species.


It's possible, however, that our bodies can get stuck in a state of heightened arousal (nervousness, stress, hyper-alert, irritability, worry, tension, etc) or a state of "frozen in fear" (depression, feeling "down," loss of appetite, unmotivated, withdrawn, etc). This can happen after repeated or prolonged stress and/or trauma. Some people may have even experienced situations/events in their preverbal or childhood years that they wouldn't even recognize as trauma (i.e. hospital stay, lack of affection in the home). This means we could potentially live in these altered states for YEARS.


This can lead to so many things you'd never even think of. I'll name a few. If anything rings a bell and you've found it unexplained by doctors, you might want to consider your vagus nerve.

  • Forward head

  • Neck pain/tension

  • Headaches

  • Teeth grinding

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Nightmares

  • Insomnia

  • Fatigue

  • Lack of motivation

  • High blood pressure

  • Shortness of breath, feeling of not getting a full breath

  • Forgetfulness

  • Difficulty concentrating, ADHD

  • Indigestion

  • Countless other digestive issues

  • Tendency to get sick


Where is the vagus nerve?


Vagus means wandering, which is exactly what our vagus nerve does. It starts in the brain as opposed to the spinal cord. It wanders through our neck and chest and through the diaphragm. There, it innervates our entire gut. The vagus nerve plays a role in our heart rate, our breathing, our blood pressure, our gut function, and subsequently much more. Whenever you get butterflies or you say, "I feel it in my gut," that's your vagus nerve at work! It's our direct connection between our physical function and stability and our mental and emotional health.


How can we reset the vagus nerve?


What we want to do when we "reset" the vagus nerve is to increase vagal tone. This means we're increasing the nerve's ability to respond to stress appropriately (we can't survive without a stress response) and to COME BACK OUT of that stress response when the "danger" has passed.


There are several ways to do this. The videos below show deep breathing (3 deep diaphragmatic breaths help to reset the nervous system) and two vagus nerve exercises (basic exercise and half-salamander). Some other techniques include chanting 'OM,' humming, cold water (to the forehead or cold showers), laugh, and play!


IMPORTANT: It is also essential that you know how to breathe correctly and have the capacity to breathe correctly (thoracic/rib mobility, diaphragm mobility). Our vagus nerve function and respiratory function rely on each other for proper function. A movement specialist can help you improve your breathing.


After watching the videos below, please share this post with a stressed-out friend!


Diaphragmatic Breathing


Basic Exercise


Half-Salamander


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