The Vagus Nerve and Stress
We spend so much time disconnected from our bodies, focusing outward to all the things we have to do and all the things we need to do in the future. The problem is that when we disconnect from our bodies, we miss important information to help us navigate stress and change.
When we are disconnected from our bodies, we are also disconnected from the ability to tune into important information being sent from our body to the brain.–Deb Dana, LCSW.
If we think of the stress response as a messenger system, we realize that turning inward, connecting with our bodies, helps us hear those messages.
The autonomic nervous system
The pathway that helps with this is the autonomic nervous system. There’s the sympathetic system that works to mobilize you to action and the parasympathetic system, which is responsible for “resting and digesting” and includes the vagus nerves.
Let’s watch this in action
You’re going along at work on a typical day–having coffee, connecting with coworkers (or your cat, if you’re at home). Your ventral vagal system is at play here. You feel connected and calm. Your body is doing its thing in the background–breathing, digesting, etc.
Then it’s there–the PING of an email. Someone demanding answers, your time, competing deadlines, impossible solutions… The sympathetic nervous system kicks in. You feel anxiety (maybe frustration), and that’s your brain/body saying, “I’ve got ya. Want me to fight them? Run fast and far away?”
Your brain is looking for you to tell it what to do because it’s primed to react to any threat just like its a speeding train off its tracks. If you use the right tools, the system calm. Your hear slows back down. Digestion restarts. But if the stress is chronic and never stops, you run the risk of a shutdown. The dorsal vagal system takes over, and you retreat like a turtle in its shell–checked out, disconnected, burned out.
So what do we do?
The first step to managing the stress response and to a balanced nervous system is listening to your body.
Listening helps us learn how to move from dysregulation to regulation. That’s the key–the ability to move from one state to another. It’s a fallacy to think that we can stay in regulation all the time. We do love the ventral vagal (pet snuggle moments), but that’s not life, is it? Life is a series of ups and downs. Normalcy is moving between ALL of these states. It’s normal to feel stress and want to fight, escape, or shut down. The thing we need to practice is recognizing that we are in a stress response and being able to pull ourselves back in regulation. The goal is to flexibly move back and forth when needed.
Remember, those same systems that activate during stress also play other roles. They work in the background to regulate our heartbeat. They help us exercise efficiently. Fight/flight/freeze/fawn are survival responses. It’s only when we move into a survival response and can’t find our way back to feelings of safety that we struggle physically and psychologically.
So take that first step. Start listening to your body and learn what it feels like at each stage and between stages. See these feeling states as messages.