The Vagus Nerve, Polyvagal Theory, and the Physical Manifestation of the Shadow Self
The vagus nerve is involved in nearly every physiological function in the human body. Harnessing the power of the vagal nerves can have a drastic and precipitate impact on your overall well being. What isn't widely known is the correlation between trauma and the vagus nerve. Trauma is critically disruptive of the function of the vagus nerve(s) and can lead to dysfunction in various parts of our body.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve, also known as the vagal nerves, are the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that controls specific body functions. Your digestion, heart rate and immune system are some body functions controlled by the vagus nerve. These functions are involuntary, meaning you can't control them consciously. Think about the vagus nerve as a symphony conductor, directing all components of your nervous system, or an air traffic controller, making sure all air traffic is functioning optimally. Discussion on the vegus nerve has been on the rise in the media lately but it is hardly a new topic. There is evidence that physicians dating back to the Roman Empire have been studying the impacts of the vagus nerve on the various functions of the body.
Trauma and the Parasympathetic Body Response
When experiencing trauma in the moments it occurs, an individual's body goes into trauma response mode, i.e., flight, fight, fawn, or freeze in order to survive what is happening to them. Some of the experiences are recalled during episodes of flashback. Experiencing trauma can cause recurring feelings of anxiety, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, and/or flashbacks.
Traumatic experiences can occur once or repeatedly. It is said that living through a traumatic experience is a "whole-body experience" meaning that an individual experiences the trauma on the inside of their body and on the outside. During a traumatic experience an individual's heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and the five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste are acute. This information is important to understand because sometimes there are things that happen later, which may '"trigger" or cue a person to feel overwhelmed and upset again. When there is a trigger, a person can go into flight, fight, fawn, or freeze. The physical sensations that happened inside the body during the traumatic event are recalled and relived.
The impact to the body this repetitive flashback process has can cause dysfunction in the vagal nerves. Yoga International has a great article on the vagus nerve and Polyvagal Theory. I am adding an excerpt from their article here:
Polyvagal Theory identifies how these three neural (of or relating to nerves or the nervous system) circuits—the dorsal vagal, sympathetic, and ventral vagal—are involved in evaluating our environment and reacting to cues of safety or threat. There are three organizing principles of the polyvagal theory:(11)
The autonomic nervous system responds to cues in the environment in a specified and predictable way. Either in order from the oldest to newest neural circuits (dorsal, sympathetic, ventral), or the newest to oldest (ventral, sympathetic, dorsal).
This is a concept coined by Dr. Porges, and describes how our autonomic nervous system subconsciously evaluates and responds to cues of safety or danger in our environment. “Detection without awareness,” Dr. Porges says. The vagus has more than 100,000 nerve fibers, and communicates bidirectionally between the brain and the body, with 80% of the fibers communicating from the body to the brain, and the other 20% communicating from the brain to the body.(12) So, that “gut feeling” you’ve felt before—that’s neuroception. It’s your body having what amounts to a “sixth sense” moment, and communicating that information to your brain.
This is the mutual regulation of physiological state between individuals.(13) One example Dr. Porges uses for co-regulation is the relationship between a mother and her baby. If a mother is calming her child and the child responds by relaxing and vocalizing sounds of contentment, this has a reciprocal effect of calming the mother. If the infant continues to be upset and doesn’t respond to the mother’s attempt to settle her, the mother will also get upset. Dr. Porges calls this our “biological need to connect.”
It is a great article, I highly recommend reading it.
What does the vagus nerve have to do with the metaphysical?
I am so glad you asked!
An activated vagus nerve can release trapped energy in your body and enable you to more easily work through past experiences that are still manifesting themselves in your body. It also helps with building a grounded spiritual practice by aligning your body and heart. It is virtually impossible to have a solid spiritual practice without first addressing your subconscious triggers and "shadow".
How do you Activate your Vagus Nerve?
Here are a few ways you can help to activate your vagus nerve:
Belly breathing - Get in the habit of adding a few sessions of deep and calm belly breathing into your routine.
Yoga, stretching, and massage - There is a proven correlation between yoga and trauma healing. Yoga helps you to release what is no longer serving you. It also helps to strengthen the mind / body connection which is crucial to a healthy, functional nervous system. Massage works in a similar way; by manually activating certain muscle groups you can stimulate the vagus nerve. (Try a foot massage or massaging along the right side of the throat)
Cold exposure - Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and can lower your sympathetic (fight or flight) response and increase parasympathetic activity.
Meditation - Research has shown that meditation aides with vagal tone and positive emotions towards oneself. Meditation is a great tool to use to calm your trauma responses in real time. Once a frequent meditation practice is developed, it is typical to experience a noticeable decrease in flashback experiences.
Energy Healing - Reiki is a wonderful tool for caring for the vagus nerve.
Vagal toning exercises
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. This has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone.
Chanting "Om" in particular has been shown to create a vibrational sensation around the ears
and throughout the body. It is expected that such a sensation is also transmitted through the
auricular branch of the vagus nerve and will produce limbic deactivation.
Incorporate "Om" chanting into a meditation practice by holding the vowel (o) part of "Om" for a few seconds then continue into the consonant (m) part for the
next 10 seconds. Repeat this chant for 10 minutes and conclude with some deep breathing and end with gratitude.
The vagus nerve is directly linked to the throat chakra. Whenever possible, include herbs, oils, and healing crystals that resonate with you in your practice.
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The vagus nerve and subsequently the physical body is impacted by trauma more than we realize. Left unhealed, it can be devastating to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Prioritizing both the activation and health of the vagal nerves is a vital foundation to a successful and therapeutic spiritual practice. Meditate regularly and do your yoga, it is more important and impactful than you may realize!
If you are experiencing symptoms of severe flashbacks, anxiety, or depression, please reach out to a healthcare professional. This blog post is only a recount of my personal experiences and what I have learned through my own research. Please do your own research or speak with a professional before making any modifications to any treatment protocols that have been prescribed or suggested to you. I am an enthusiast, not a licensed healthcare professional and my advice should not be taken above that of a professional.