Say hello to "The Wandering Nerve"
Here's the science blog (bear with me, it's important!)
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. The name “vagus” in Latin means “wandering” and it originates in the brainstem and is responsible for the parasympathetic control of the majority of our internal organs, including the heart, the lungs, and the digestive tract. Understandably, having good vagus nerve function is absolutely vital to health...and particularly for mental health. Here's why...
Dr. Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory explains our nervous system’s response to stress or danger, and the vagus nerve plays a starring role. It is a key element in the gut-brain axis (the communication between the gut and the brain). The vagus nerve, however, is pretty special! It can send signals in both directions. You may be surprised to know that 80% of the information transmitted by the vagus nerve follows a body-to-brain direction (bottom up processing).
The autonomic nervous system is our personal surveillance system, continually sensing levels of safety, listening out for danger and risk. This listening happens out of awareness or conscious control and is known as neuroception. What quickly follows is a response to ensure survival. You will be familiar with the flight/fight/freeze response.
When we understand the role and response of the autonomic nervous system in service of our safety and survival, we can hold a curious and compassion attitude. We can begin to befriend the autonomic nervous system, map our personal response patterns, respond and attend to our needs in a mindful way. Mapping leads naturally to tracking which, in turn, leads to a conscious tuning and toning of our autonomic nervous system.
Vagus nerve toning is surprisingly easy to do! The key is anything that involves a longer out-breath. Here are some ideas to incorporate into your daily practice of self-care.
Deep breathing (with an emphasis on a longer outbreath)
Big sighs when frustrated! Try adding in a dramatic "OH DEAR!" (have fun with it!)