The Vagus Nerve in Trauma Recovery
by Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Many distressing symptoms of post-traumatic stress are felt in the body – a tightness in the chest, a sinking feeling in the stomach, a familiar knot in the throat, or as a chronic feeling of exhaustion. We now recognize that we must turn toward the body as part of the healing process and as a result we have seen a surge in the use of mind body therapies such as: Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, Feldenkrais, Breathwork, Massage, Breathwork, Craniosacral, Nutritional Counseling, Acupuncture and Mindfulness for treatment for post traumatic stress. Mind-body therapies help us be less vulnerable to stress, less reactive, and less impulsive. We increase our awareness of the choices we have to help us feel grounded and calm. We feel more in control. One way mind-body therapies work is by stimulating the Vagus Nerve. Knowledge about how this nerve works provides a fundamental understanding of traumatic stress and facilitates our ability to heal.
“Mind-body therapies work with the vagus nerve to help you find balance. Through a process of self-study and mindful body awareness, you can start to learn strategies that help you restore a sense of safety and heal from trauma.”
Mind-body therapies are associated with a changes in health and wellbeing including:
•Improvements in physical and mental health
•Reduced opiate and psychotropic use
•Enhanced emotional well-being
•Better social relationships
•Reduced autonomic sympathetic activation
•Reduced blood pressure
•Improved neuro-endocrine activity
•Improved thyroid health
•Improved blood sugar management
•Improved digestive system health
•Reduced Inflammation and improved rheumatoid arthritis
•Decreased reported symptoms of PTSD
•Improved vagal tone as measured by increased heart rate variability (HRV)
Mind-body therapies are effective because they engage physiological changes in the autonomic nervous system as measured by changes in the functioning of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem down into the muscles of the face, inner ear, throat, heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines. Mind-body therapies create changes in how we orient to our environment by inviting a soft gaze and invite us to explore new patterns of breath or movement that directly interact with these areas of the body.
Practices to Reset the Vagus Nerve
Attend to your Gut Health
Increase the health of your vagus nerve by maintaining a healthy
digestive system. The enteric nervous system, also called belly brain,
is made up of the “microbiome” that lives in your gut.
This ecosystem contains good and bad bacteria that reside within your intestinal
tracts. An imbalance in your gut can lead to an inflammatory response in your
immune system and cause a wide range of disruptive symptoms,
including anxiety and depression. Improve your microbiome by
reducing sugar intake and identifying any hidden food intolerances.
You may need the assistance of a doctor or nutritionist to discover causes of gut
Conscious Breathing: Breath is one of the fastest ways to shift our nervous system states. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10. can Further stimulate vagus nerve by creating a slight constriction at the back of the throat and creating an “hhh”. Breathe like you are trying to fog a mirror to create the feeling in the throat but inhale and exhale out of the nose sound (in yoga, called Ujjayi pranayama).
Laugh Out Loud
Laughter is the best medicine. It creates a natural high of endorphins throughout
your body. A good belly laugh naturally changes how you breathe, your heart
rate, and your blood pressure.
Shake it Out
Inspired by animals in the wild, you can use a simple shaking practice to let go of physical tension or come out of a freeze response. First, scan your body with your awareness to notice areas of tension. Then, focus on these spots and one at a time give yourself permission to shake them out. Allow yourself to surrender to the shaking and if possible let yourself release any sounds to accompany the movement. When you feel complete, take a moment to pause in the stillness and notice the subsequent release.
Vagus nerve passes by vocal chords and inner ear. Therefore, humming and singing both can have a calming effect on your nervous system. In yoga, Bhamari pranayama, or Honeybee breath provides an opportunity to experiment with a humming sound. In this practice, I invite you to sit in a comfortable position and close your ears with your palms (thumbs facing down). On the exhale create a humming sound to vibrate your eardrum. Repeat as long as desired.
Rinse and Repeat
Vagus nerve is constantly moving us in and out of balance as we are adapt to the changing demands of our world. Therefore, we need to repeat vagus nerve balancing exercises. This is why many mind-body therapies are used as a daily practice.