Reset Your Nervous System: Somatic Tools for Vagal ToneAug 27, 2023
Beneath our conscious awareness, our autonomic nervous system works tirelessly to maintain homeostasis and keep us alive. Like an ocean churning with deep currents, it regulates our stress response without our input.
But sometimes those currents carry us into stormy waters. Imbalances between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches disrupt healthy function, breeding chronic stress. The key is learning to reset the nervous system by retraining the vagus nerve that governs relaxation.
Through various somatic practices, we can build vagal tone - strengthening the body’s capacity to shift out of fight-or-flight and into rest-and-digest. Activating the vagus nerve stimulates the parasympathetic system, bringing calm. With simple tools, we can rewrite our neural patterns toward resilience.
Fight-or-Flight vs Rest-and-Digest
To understand balancing the nervous system, we must first examine its two main divisions - the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. Each plays a vital but opposing role.
The sympathetic nervous system activates the body’s fight-flight-freeze response to perceived threats. It revs up physiological processes, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. We mobilize for war against the danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite - it calms the body after the threat has passed so we can rest, heal, and digest. Its main nerve, the vagus, lowers heart rate and blood pressure. We return to normal.
Ideally, these two branches flow in an adaptive rhythm, amping up or down as threats come and go. However, chronic stress can cause them to become stuck on high or low, which strains long-term health. Retraining the vagus nerve helps reset this balance.
The Vagus Nerve
The word “vagus” means wandering in Latin, aptly depicting this nerve’s meandering path. Originating in the brainstem, it branches out to major organs like the heart, lungs, and gut. Polyvagal theory argues that the vagus importantly links mind and body.
As the body’s major parasympathetic activator, the vagus nerve stimulates rest-and-digest processes when we feel safe. This includes digestion, immunity, blood glucose regulation, kidney function, and heart rate control via connections to the sinoatrial node.
Low vagal tone - a weak ability to trigger the vagus nerve and downshift into parasympathetic mode - causes physical and mental issues. Boosting vagal tone helps reduce inflammation, chronic stress, mood disorders, and more. Retraining this wandering nerve rewires the threat response.
Boosting Vagal Tone
Various somatic practices naturally strengthen vagal tone. For example, diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, chanting, and meditation activate the vagus through its pathways in the throat and chest. Cold exposure likewise stimulates vagal activity.
Regular exercise improves vagal control of the heart. Some neurofeedback devices use sound, vibration, or electricity to target beneficial neural pathways. Even gag reflex exercises exploit connections between throat muscles and threat response wiring.
Diet and lifestyle also influence vagal tone. Sugar, alcohol, and caffeine disrupt healthy function, while omega oils strengthen neural cell membranes. Social connection, relaxation, creativity, and time in nature also boost parasympathetic activity through vagal pathways.
Dr. Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory elucidated the vagus nerve’s role in threat responses and bonding. He realized stimulating the vagus through its cranial nerves triggers a “neuroception” of safety, taking us out of defensive mobilization.
When the vagus registers safety, it flips the body out of sympathetic fight-or-flight and into parasympathetic mode. Heart rate and breathing slow. Muscles relax. We move from activation to tranquil openness as vagal input overrides sympathetic tone.
From an evolutionary view, a calm vagus intuits an environment devoid of predators so we can rest, commune, and tend to our young. Yoga, meditation, cold, and oxytocin release - all stimulate this primal shift toward peaceful connection.
Photo credir: Hal Gatewood @Unsplash
Somatic Nervous System Exercises
Beyond those mentioned already, what other somatic practices reset the threat response and stimulate vagal tone? Here are a few more tools:
- Humming/chanting: Vocal vibrations engage the vagus via cranial nerves. Chanting “om” profoundly resonates with the chest.
- Gargling: Triggers the gag reflex wired close to threat pathways. Washing the throat with salt water activates the vagus.
- Tai chi: Slow mindful movement engages the immersion response, signaling safety.
- Acupuncture: Releases oxytocin and serotonin to stimulate parasympathetic activity.
- Guided meditations: Visualizations signaling safety relax the nervous system.
The options are endless, from sound baths to nature walks. By directly or indirectly activating the vagus, we repattern our neural reflexes away from chronic stress.
While much progress reduces external dangers, our nervous system wiring still revolves around threats. Fortunately, we have an elegant solution - strengthening the body’s own relaxation system by training the vagus nerve.
Through breathing, movement, cold, sound, and mindfulness, we can rewrite neural pathways toward greater stress resilience. A calm and responsive autonomic system unlocks incredible health benefits.
As we gently stimulate the vagus each day, we cue our primal biology that the world is not such a scary place. Our nervous system resets; vitality and joy bubble up. In the end, it takes only simple practices repeated with care to convince the ancient vagus that life is good.
Photo credit: Josh Riemer @Unsplash
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