I recently went to a training in Somatic Experiencing. A protocol of trauma healing founded by Peter Levine. There were many incredible things I learned from this weekend (many of which will probably come to be posted about in this blog), but one of the breakthrough moments of enlightenment I would like to share about today is the Vagus Nerve. Many of the concepts I will share come from Stephen Porges “Polyvagal Theory”.
The Vagus Nerve seems to be somewhat of a hot topic these days in mental health, naturopathic medicine, biofeedback, and other forms of healing (yoga, massage therapy, dance therapy, etc.).
The Vagus nerve is what enables our body to move into Parasympathetic dominance (rest and digest mode). When we work to stimulate our vagus nerve we are communicating to our brain and the rest of our body that we are “safe” and that it is okay to calm down. This is taught widely in many different health circles, and may be something you are familiar with. An important distinction to note is that we have two branches of our vagus nerve: the dorsal vagal and the ventral vagal complex’s.
The Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC) is a more rudimentary portion of our vagus system. The DVC is what is dominant when a person (or animal) is is “freeze” mode. This occurs when signals have reached the brain and nervous system that say “there is no way we are going to be able to fight off or flee away from this threat, so we just need to play dead and hopes that the harm will pass and at some point we will be able to get out of this situation.” Essentially it is like the emergency break of a car for the nervous system. The DVC is responsible for energy conservation and giving our body the bare minimum for what is necessary to survive.
The Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) is a more formed branch within the vagus nerve. If we stick with the car analogy the VVC is like the soft break to our system that is communicating “hey, that is a nice beach over there…why don’t we slow down, pull over, have a picnic, and enjoy it?” The VVC is responsible for our ability to socially engage, and it enables us to be oriented to our surroundings.
When we have experienced chronic stress or grown up experiencing trauma- we are more likely to be functioning out of our Dorsal Vagal Complex. This is not something that is bad or wrong, in fact it is what the body has needed to do to survive; however, the Dorsal Vagal Complex is meant to be a short-term, temporary form of survival. Our bodies are not wired to spend long amounts of time hanging out with the e-brake on (as you can imagine the wear and tear this would put on an automobile to constantly be driving with the e-brake pulled). This is significant when we are dealing with healing trauma, because this is a nervous-system level survival mechanism. Just talking alone to someone who is in Dorsal Vagal dominance is like trying to have a helpful conversation with a deer that is in the headlights of a car (sorry for all the car analogies?) and is unable to think or move.
The nervous system needs to realize that the trauma has passed in order for an individual to begin to be able to even talk about their traumas, much less experience healing after trauma!
How does this happen?
The most basic ways we can enable the system to heal after trauma or chronic stress is by enabling the mind and body to become grounded in the present moment.
Take a moment to start to look around where you are. How many things that are yellow do you notice? How about green? Any other colors you become aware of? How many things that are circular do you become aware of? Are there any unique or unusual shapes that you see?
What do you start to notice in your mind and breathe as you allow yourself to orient to where you are? Perhaps you find your breathe has begun to slow down. It can be common to take an involuntary deep breathe as your system begins to orient to where you are.
Now perhaps notice sensations within the body. Are there certain temperatures, sensations, or feelings that you begin to notice in your body? What happens as your mind and body start to integrate into the moment and pay attention to your body?
That’s it! 3 simply (but not always easy) steps to beginning to be more mindful and present- enabling your Ventral Vagal Complex to start to become activated.
You may say “Hey wait a minute! I noticed that I feel angry, anxious, or some other feeling that doesn’t feel good…” That actually makes sense from a nervous system level. When our body has had to move into Dorsal Vagal dominance it is because we have experienced something that is too much for our body to handle, so often things will start to “feel worse before they feel better” as the body starts to wake up. It’s a bit like when you have pins and needles after your foot has fallen asleep. It’s not always a pleasurable experience, but it is signifying that nerve endings and feelings are coming back on line! So take time, be patient with yourself, and if it feels like the emotions or sensations that come up are too difficult to handle alone- please seek professional services to help you navigate living in a body more fully awake.
Thank you for reading!