What happens in vagus…

I’ve been writing a lot around stress these last few weeks in the attempt to get you to deeper appreciate what stress is, what forms it can take, how much stress you might actually be under, and most importantly, that you can do something about stress, the way you stress and decrease the detrimental impact that it is having on your health and wellbeing.

At the core of nervous system regulation and resilience, something I am very passionate in educating my patients and followers on, is our allostatic skillset – the ability for us to be able to self-regulate our nervous system out of our stress response and back into homeostasis – our healthy balance.

And at the core of allostasis, from a neuro-physiological perspective, is the almighty vagus nerve. So, in this article, let’s explore vagus!!

There are many influential people putting out valuable information on the vagus nerve, but they present it as though the vagus nerve is one, solitary nerve, and it’s not. The vagus nerve is not one nerve, but a bundle of nerves, and like all cranial nerves (nerves that leave the brain), it has two branches – one from the right of the brain and one from the left. The vagus nerve is the main parasympathetic nerve responsible for calming us and it’s responsible for bringing our body out of the activating sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight stress response.

The vagus nerve travels down the back of the neck behind the carotid arteries, then crosses to the front of the body with the right vagus branching off to connect to the sinoatrial node on the heart. The sinoatrial node is the heart’s pacemaker which sets the rhythm of the heart, so the vagus is critical in heart rate regulation and plays a major role in stepping aside for the activating fight or flight response, driven by the sympathetic nervous system, to get us prepped and ready for action.

The vagus continues down the body towards the diaphragm where it then branches off in a tree-root-like pattern all throughout the abdomen. The diaphragm is a key landmark along the vagus nerve. Everything from the diaphragm down is the evolutionarily older territory referred to as the dorsal vagus. The dorsal vagus branch services all our abdominal viscera (organs) and it’s very much why we feel our emotions in our gut i.e. our gut sense/intuition/emotions. Optimal balance and function of the digestive system is critically regulated by a healthy autonomic tone to the dorsal vagus. From the diaphragm upwards, we find the “newer” ventral vagus which is unique among the mammalian species and is involved in upper digestive function, cardiac and respiratory relaxation as well as being crucially important to social engagement and the sense of safety. The ventral vagal is our happy, healthy, healing and safe space, and in an ideal world and physiology, be the predominant state of rest for us. 

A whopping 80% of the information that flows through our vagal system comes from the body back up to the brain, leaving a measly 20% of information coming from a “top-down” direction, from brain to body. So, with this knowledge, how important is it to be connected with your body and all that information? How much control over your emotions and stress response do you think you have when trying to “think your way out of it” – with only 20% horsepower? Now consider people that may be dissociated from, or struggle to connect with, their body. This can happen for a variety of reasons, with a classic example being traumatic early childhood experiences – where the body is no longer a safe place to be in. Maybe you learnt that emotions were not safe so had to repress your experience of them and if 80% of your experience of said emotions is somatic (in the body), where do you think you will retreat to? Bingo, the mind, reinforcing the disassociation to maintain “safety”. 

What does this mean for health though? These unfortunate people can struggle to hear the language of the body communicating to them in the forms of signs and symptoms. This ingenious feedback mechanism the body uses starts as whispers… then, turns to shouts if we ignore them or can’t hear them. From shouts, to screams… How loud does the body need to communicate before we hear? How much suffering do we need to experience?  With that inability to hear the body’s “calls to action”, these people continue with their potentially less-than-optimal lifestyle choices and autonomic states, unaware and unable to hear the body’s call for changes. Slowly but surely, the allostatic load increases, the body wearing down from the less than optimal choices, unaddressed stress, and unexpressed emotion. The result… illness and suffering. 

BUT!!! the good news… There is so much to be done to counteract this. To learn the language of the body, to recognise our autonomic states and to attend to them appropriately. To build our resilience, our window of tolerance, our capacity to hold more without the detrimental impact. YES, this is absolutely possible. But first must come the awareness and hence my articles, for without awareness, there is nothing to change… 

A central tenant to Stephen Porges “PolyVagal Theory” is a concept referred to as the “vagal brake”. The vagal brake refers to the inhibitory influence of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve on the sympathetic, fight or flight nervous system’s activity. In other words, it acts as a braking mechanism that down-regulates the body’s stress response mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. 

For a moment, I want you to imagine that you are sitting there on the couch at home with your beloveds. You feel calm, centred and regulated. The environment is familiar and safe and you feel connected with your family… THEN, suddenly, you hear yelling and pounding on the front door… a brick comes flying through the window. In an instant, your vagal brake is released allowing the flood of sympathetic nervous system mobilisation energy into your body and mind. Your heart rate instantaneously increases, blood pressure along with it. Your breathing pattern changes, short, sharp and shallow. You feel tension build in the body and a laser focused attention on one of two things… Fight, or flight? 

Then, you hear sirens of a police car come screeching to a halt in your driveway and police officers jumping out of the car to tackle the offenders to the ground. The cuffs go on and they shuffle them off into the back of the police car. OMG what the hell happened? We’re safe, it’s OK, we are safe now… 

As the vagal brake is reapplied, the tension in your body starts to settle along with your breath and heart rates. The nervous energy shaking through your system begins to wane as your body comes back down to baseline, much like the African antelope that has successfully escaped a lion on the hunt. As you talk with the policemen and women, the source of your safety, the vagal brake is pulled on even harder and you slowly start to settle, maybe even crack a smile and a little joke. The police officers stay with you, talk with you and reassure you everything is now safe. Eventually it is time for them to leave. You feel much better in yourself, not fully at peace (how could you be), but back present, with your family, connected.

Can you see the role of the vagal brake here in allowing our stress response to engage when we need survival mode? To release off, allowing the flow of fight or flight, sympathetic nervous system energy to flood the body? And when the vagal brake is reapplied, the energy flow of fight or flight is slowed helping to bring us out of our stress response and back to baseline, homeostasis?

Just like our bicep muscles on our arms that have a “tone” to them, so too does the vagus nerves? The more we workout our biceps, the more toned, stronger, and more control over our biceps we have. What are your vagal muscles like? Do they need some toning? 

Before I explore ways to build those vagal muscles up, lets first visit what weakens the vagus system – that decreases vagal tone. Just like the handbrake on your car, if you were to use it excessively for long periods of time, for years, months, decades, without getting your mechanic to tighten the cable to the back wheels from time to time, the cable will stretch and get lax. You pull on the handbrake, and nothing, the car keeps rolling. With a floppy vagal brake, as we traverse into our stress response, we find our self unable to pull on the brakes and stop how deep into our stress response we go. And sometimes, we can struggle to pull our self out of stress and find our self in a holding pattern of chronic, persistent stress. This is the impact that high stress levels have on us over the long term. In previous articles, I’ve mentioned that it is the dose of stress that can make it a medicine, or poison. Poison here is long periods of chronic, persistent stress. It weakens vagal tone and decreases the impact of our vagal brake.

So, what can we do to give our self a vagal tune up then?

  • Allostatic load – We can first of all look at our total stress levels and see if we can actively decrease the amount of stress we are under. Think on the levels of physical stressors, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, financial, family/relationships and career.
  • Breathwork – We can engage our breath as vagal medicine. Slow your breath down. Focus on a long, slow, controlled in breath for a count of 5 seconds, then a longer, slower controlled out breath of 8 seconds. Set a countdown timer on your phone for 10-20 minutes and simply breath like I’ve described. This style of breathwork engages the parasympathetic nervous system and increases the tone of the vagal nerve
  • Exercise – but not just any sort of exercise. exercise that includes shorts bursts of maximum effort for you followed by substantial rest to bring you back to easy, nasal breathing. If you can breathe easily in and out of your nose, keep resting/rest longer. This type of exercise is also called HIIT (high intensity interval training). It’s working out smarter, not harder and your nervous system loves it. It decreases the stress on the body promoting your body’s ability to come back to baseline and workout not only your body’s muscles, but your vagal ones too
  • Meditation – meditation can be many things, but in this context, think of it as practicing the stress response. Sit in a relaxed position on the couch/chair/end of the bed, and in an upright, solid, yet relaxed posture, gentle close your eyes and bring your awareness to the dark space before your closed eyes. With a gentle gaze focus your attention there. At some point your awareness and attention will wander away, that’s ok, gentle disregard any thoughts you have had and bring your awareness back to the dark space again. You will need to do this over and over again no doubt. It’s a little bit like training a puppy to sit, and in this example, your mind is that puppy! Keep bringing your awareness/attention back to the dark space and eventually, your puppy mind will learn to sit and be still. After a while switch your awareness to the sounds you may be able to hear inside and outside of the room. Just try to let your awareness/attention sit on those sounds without going into analysing what the sounds are. Let’s the sounds simply be sounds. Again, if the puppy runs off, don’t scold it and bring it back to the sounds you can hear. Another focus point can be your breathing. Follow each breath as it enters and leaves your body. notice all the nuances of the breath and when the mind wanders, come back to the next breath and start the following process again. Set a countdown timer on your phone for 10-20 minutes and work with these techniques.
  • Cold Exposure – Cold exposure, such as splashing cold water on your face or taking cold showers, can stimulate the vagus nerve’s activity. Cold exposure triggers a sympathetic, fight or flight response initially, followed by a vagal response to counteract the stress. This can enhance vagal tone over time. Start with small doses of cold exposure and work up to longer periods. An example of this is finishing off your hot shower with 10 seconds of cold. It doesn’t need to be full cold to begin with, but start working your way up to full cold for 10 seconds and once that is easy, extend the time in the cold. The key is to focus on a calm, long breath as described above in the face of the stressor (the cold water in this case)
  • Singing, Chanting, and Humming – Activities that involve vocalizations, such as singing, chanting, or humming, can stimulate the vagus nerve. These activities engage the muscles of the throat and vocal cords, which are connected to the vagus nerve. Singing in particular is associated with increased vagal activity and relaxation.
  • Mindfulness and Yoga – Mindfulness practices and yoga have been shown to increase vagal activity and improve overall well-being. These practices promote relaxation, reduce stress, and foster a sense of calm. Focusing on the present moment, deepening your breath, and incorporating gentle movements can all help activate and tone the vagus nerve. There are many great online resources to be found that can guide you through gentle yoga practices such as the Yin Yoga style.

As with your muscles… if you don’t use them, you lose them. And so it is with your vagal muscles. Daily cultivation of the tone in the vagus system is essential to help you healthily be able to regulate your nervous system and protect you from the detrimental impact of stress. Set yourself up with a non-negotiable daily self-care routine, with the emphasis on NON-NEGOTIABLE. This is probably the most important gift you can give yourself and to build your allostatic skillset, practice is required. Remind yourself of this each time you sit down ready to practice. Remember why you are there doing these techniques and the impact it can have on your health, happiness and healing.


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Hi my name is Eddie. I am committed to educating and empowering individuals and families with the skills and knowledge to break the multi-generational nature of trauma and stress so they can live life to their full potential.


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