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The Vagus Nerve and Nervous System Balance

The Vagus Nerve and Nervous System Balance
August 18, 2023 Charli Wall
In Blog
Photolithograph oof a 1543 woodcut by Andrew Vesalius

Our living systems, much like our intricate nervous system, thrive on the harmony of feedback loops that interconnect various neural pathways.

These loops, exemplified by the mind-body-environment cycle, allow our systems to adapt, respond, and evolve.

They enable us not only to synchronise with our internal facets—like the endocrine, emotional, immune, and psychological systems—but also to harmonise within the broader tapestry of our surroundings, including family, culture, relationships, and the natural world.

At the heart of this intricate interplay is the vagus nerve, a profound feedback loop that originates in the brainstem.

This nerve bridges the realms of the brain, body, environment, and the intricate nervous systems of all living beings.

When positive feedback loops weave between the brain, body, environment, and other nervous systems, they foster self-regulation and adaptability.

However, negative loops can trigger nervous system imbalance and potential trauma, with positivity signifying safety and negativity signaling threat.

This crucial concept, grounded in systems theory, neuroscience, and the Polyvagal Theory, unveils how and why our nervous system becomes layered in self-protective mechanisms as it encounters life’s challenges.

For a child, their nervous system relies on the reassuring presence of an adult’s nervous system for comfort and regulation.

Yet, when this support falters—when adults are absent, incapable, or unaware—the child’s feedback loop between their body-mind, environment, and parental nervous system can shift from a signal of safety to one of threat.

This transition activates the child’s protective responses, which, when unaddressed, can escalate into a state of overwhelm and vagus nerve trauma.

Known as the “wanderer nerve,” the vagus nerve, extending from the brainstem, reaches out to vital areas like the inner ear, facial muscles, throat, and beyond—down to the lungs, chest, stomach, and even the diaphragm, abdomen, and pelvis.

Remarkably, 80% of vagus nerve fibers carry sensory information from the body to the central nervous system, while the remaining 20% relay messages from the brain to the body.

Central to our balance is the vagus nerve’s role in regulation, a cornerstone of the parasympathetic nervous system.

This role entails taming survival energy and restoring calm after the adrenaline surge of the “fight-or-flight” response to danger.

Yet, when the vagus nerve is burdened by unresolved shock, stress, or trauma, its harmony falters, disconnecting the brain, body, environment, and relational sphere.

This imbalance can manifest in various ways, including GERD, IBS, nausea, migraines, fatigue, depression, and the alternating dance between hyper-arousal and emotional withdrawal.

We may also find ourselves grappling with repetitive thoughts and struggling to manage our emotional and sensory experiences.

To mend and nurture the vagus nerve’s tone and balance, we must:

  • Enhance the feedback loops among the mind, body, environment, and other nervous systems, aiming for safety and self-regulation.
  • Gradually cultivate our capacity to experience comfort, rest, vulnerability, and even discomfort within our bodies.
  • Embrace the power of touch and sensory experiences to awaken the vagus nerve’s potential, countering the tech-centric, touch-deprived world we often inhabit.
  • Recognise and address signs of vagus nerve dysregulation, such as tinnitus, auto-immune issues, seizures, depression, panic attacks, and emotional oscillations.

In embarking on this journey, we embark on a transformative shift, fostering a profound connection between our internal and external worlds while nourishing the delicate balance of our nervous system

Here are some activities and practices that can help improve vagus nerve tone and promote overall nervous system regulation:

  1. Deep Breathing: Practice slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing to stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the relaxation response. Inhale deeply for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and exhale for a count of 6.
  2. Mindfulness and Meditation: Engage in mindfulness meditation to cultivate awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. This practice can enhance vagal tone over time.
  3. Yoga and Stretching: Gentle yoga poses, especially those that involve chest-opening and forward bends, can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
  4. Cold Exposure: Brief exposure to cold water, such as a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face, can activate the vagus nerve and increase its tone.
  5. Laughter and Social Connection: Spending time with loved ones, engaging in laughter, and nurturing positive social connections can enhance vagal tone.
  6. Singing and Chanting: Vocal exercises, singing, humming, and chanting stimulate the muscles of the throat and activate the vagus nerve.
  7. Gargling and Swallowing: Gargling with water or swallowing can stimulate the muscles in the back of the throat, which are connected to the vagus nerve.
  8. Positive Emotions: Cultivate positive emotions such as gratitude, compassion, and joy, as they have been shown to enhance vagal tone.
  9. Spending Time in Nature: Connecting with nature and spending time outdoors can have a calming effect on the nervous system and promote vagal tone.
  10. Deep and Slow Chewing: Chewing food slowly and thoroughly can stimulate the vagus nerve and aid in digestion.
  11. Aromatherapy and Calming Scents: Inhaling calming scents like lavender, chamomile, or bergamot can have a soothing effect on the nervous system.
  12. Massage and Bodywork: Gentle massages, especially around the neck, throat, and chest areas, can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation
  13. Regular Exercise: Engaging in moderate physical activity, such as walking, swimming, or cycling, can support overall nervous system health, including vagal tone.

Remember that consistency is key when working to improve vagal tone. Incorporating these practices into your daily routine and making them a part of your lifestyle can lead to long-term benefits for your nervous system health.

It’s also important to listen to your body and choose activities that feel comfortable and enjoyable for you.

If you would like to learn more about these practices, I will be diving deep into Somatic Practices on my Deep Nature Rewilding Retreat. 

Click that link above to download the itinerary.

I also dive into these topics & more in my free Facebook group for women only, The Freedom Group, OR my trauma specific group for both men, & women which can be found here Unseen Trauma: Overcoming Triggers & Healing Unworthiness

Love, Charli x


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