Deliberately Vagus


The above title seems to describe life perfectly for me these days….on so many levels. I hope to share how this is true for me.…exploring the sense of this marvelous nervous pathway we’re just beginning to understand and believe in its power, control, and determination of our total health or lack of it….being deliberately vague: not wanting to be anyone’s authority but my own, yet happily exploring all that intrigues me without being overwhelmed by the many choices one could choose to serve…..sharing what I’ve found, when asked, and being satisfied if I’ve instilled a question as well as an answer, occasionally.

The vagus nerve is getting more and more buzz, and happily and rightly so. Stephen Porges has broken ground with his book The Polyvagal Theory (2011, Norton & Co, NY, NY).  I’m working through the book for the first time currently, and will get more of what I need on the second read, but so far I’m most impressed with my basic understanding of his theory. If what you read in this article doesn’t seem right, don’t blame Porges!  I’m slogging through, beginning to pick up understanding, and am fascinated.

We need to start by realizing that the vagus isn’t simply one nerve, but a wandering and disparate bunch, which can be classified primarily as autonomic: sympathetic/parasympathetic, but also as dorsal/ventral. The theory begins for me with the realization that it’s the only cranial nerve to truly descend into the body, where it pretty much manages all our automatic functions.  Wow.  That’s an amazing start. It’s some VERY important communication between head, heart, gut, and groin.  Even more interesting is that direction of impulses is directed primarily towards the brain, not from the brain to the body.  The brain lives in every cell and constantly processes information from many of them.

So the autonomic system includes sympathetic, which controls action in response to signals received: fight or flight being chief among them.  The parasympathetic system, mainly about resting and digesting, is also the shut down or play dead mechanism….the freeze or play possum default. It’s easy to rev up the sympathetic tone, and can take longer to turn it down, or to allow parasympathetic tone to rise.  We get stuck in fight or flight and find it harder to relax and find neutral. Our vagal brake is meant to do this work, and it works better when we remember to deep breathe, meditate, be mindful, etc. There is no fast way to inherently slow down the sympathetic tone or stimulate parasympathetic tone, except for the vagal braking system.

Polyvagal gets interesting when we begin to learn that each spinal column has four management centers, and that different centers control disparate reactions to stress. So we can choose an action: to fight, or to run away. That’s activated by the nucleus ambiguous (NA) and the sympathetic nervous system which is associated with dealing with challenges from outside the body, our environment.  But the older, more mammalian way of coping with such a stress is to exhibit no sign of life.  It’s operated by a different system in the brainstem, the DNMX or dorsal motor nucleus (in the dorsomedial medulla), also seen as the dorsal vagal complex. So when we want to escape by faking death, we’re activating the dorsal vagus; when we’re trying to act in some manner to defend or flee, we’re activating the ventral vagus. (It’s helpful to realize that parasympathetic or PNS is most concerned with promoting functions associated with growth and restoration, while sympathetic or SNS is most concerned with increasing outputs to deal with threats from outside).

Interestingly, we ‘evolved’ mammals have an even newer system, a myelinated vagus also coming from the nucleus ambiguous inhibits the sympathetic system and allows us to process, reason, communicate, and choose. This is also in the ventral vagal complex, and it’s associated with emotion. This system takes us to the amygdala, the integrative center for emotions, behavior and motivation….all sensations go through the amygdala. I think it’s this system that creates so much havoc in our health and lives, and the one I’m interested in learning how to help people ‘reset’ so they can get out of their vagal brake response and carry on with life!  Do you begin to see why good neck work and good stomach work are so important as therapists?

Heart rate variability (HRV) and/or respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) can be measured to show that healthy individuals have higher HRV. The core measurement for HRV is measuring the beat-to-beat variability….a greater span is healthier. It seems that high HRV individuals have some way of resetting their vagus nerves, shaking out their fight/flee/freeze mechanism, and remaining healthy and resilient.  I believe it’s this evolution of the ventral vagus that causes us to be resilient, or not. Again, breath is important to healthy HRV, which also contributes to better circulation, less inflammation, lower blood pressure, and lower cortisol levels.  Proper vagal brake which shuts down the sympathetic system and raises the parasympathetic, contributes to this enhanced HRV. Increasing HRV and vagal braking can improve brain function as well!

Now, what got me interested in this work was a quote from Porges in an interview quite a few years back: “….the pivotal/critical point is, can we get people to feel safe?” This is health, this is healing. And we’re finally, finally beginning to understand how critical vagal health is for all health.

If a nerve can start at the base of the brain, meander through the entire trunk and regulate the automatic functions of all the organs and systems, as well as instantaneously choose reactions that create the ability to maintain homeostasis or condition of smooth sailing—that nerve is vital to vitality! And as we’re finally beginning to sense what it’s about, how do we train ourselves to allow homeostasis instead of creating fear in every moment?

I maintain some of us are addicted to ‘fight’, or to ‘flee’, or to ‘play dead’. It seems to me, that too many of us choose one or other of these mechanisms to be our default switch, allowing us to feel alive by hooking into the adrenal system and overloading it in our desire to feel something. Many of us have chosen to strive for success; we fight for it.  Others of us meander the path, waiting to see if success wants to find us…we run away.  Still others move through life as quietly and unassumingly as possible, trying to not be seen….playing dead.  And most of us have used all three of these systems from time to time, and perhaps/hopefully in a healthful and helpful way, to cope….because they are coping mechanisms.  That’s what they’re there for!  But we prefer not to get stuck in any one of them.  That’s where I believe we’ve failed; how are we creating safety for the clients who visit us?  How do we instill in them a sense of rest, of homeostasis, or a purring machine that takes them where they want to go? How do we find that for ourselves?

This is where Porges and Peter Levine intersect….Levine’s work of Somatic Experiencing (Waking the Tiger, 1997, North Atlantic, Berkely and In An Unspoken Voice, 2010, ibid) crosses the bridge between physiology and psychology as he asks clients to experience their stuck trauma but focus on body sensation as they do so.  When a person can find the stimulus that still feels like a trauma, then learn to lessen the traumatic feeling by paying attention to the entire body until the trauma or tension dissipates, they’re resetting that vagal pathway, clearing out the old signals, and moving forward.  We’ve forgotten how to do that.

How and why does this affect me, as a bodyworker? First, partly because I now think of myself as treating bodymindcore whenever a client comes to me….one can’t discount all the crazy-making behaviors of self and others as we try to negotiate this unsafe planet. I want to help people stay present in their trauma, face it in a dose they can manage, and learn to release it.  I find that I both want to better understand the workings of the nervous system, then get better at soothing those nerves as I work with the body medium. I also want to understand the vagal system, learn to respond in the chest and stomach at an appropriate layer, and encourage clients to ‘let it go’.  It’s holy work I get to do!

Remember how a child can fall, scrape a knee, and get Mom to kiss it and make it better? We need to find that talent, instill that ability to shake it out and go on, and remember to do similar work for ourselves. We need to help our vagal system understand what’s truly dangerous, what’s not, and how to move forward after evaluating danger, without being stuck in one of the unwanted patterns of fighting, running, or playing dead—all of which contribute to survival, but not in every moment. When we learn this technique for ourselves, we become better therapists for our clients.


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