There is a place in the human body that, when stimulated, can promote and ignite self-healing, connectedness, compassion, and human kindness (DiSalvo, 2009; Keltner, 2009; Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, Maiti, 1994). What's best, we can access this place anytime we choose. This physiological structure, known as the vagus nerve, has been a source of fascination and inquiry for many researchers. The vagus nerve is actually a bundle of nerves, the longest in the human body, and it connects the brain to the heart, lungs, and digestive system.
Perhaps the most interesting function of the vagus nerve is that it triggers the parasympathetic system's "relaxation response," essentially the reverse effect of the notorious "fight or flight" response. The relaxation response is composed of hormones and enzymes like acetylcholine (which signals smooth muscle tissues to relax, thereby encouraging blood vessels to open up), vasopressin (which promotes homeostasis and pair bonding or forming close connections with others), and oxytocin (which promotes social intimacy, connection, and feelings of love). Activation of the vagus response has also been linked with reduced inflammation.
In other words, activation of this bundle of nerves can have a powerful impact on our health and the quality of our relationship to others. Practiced in moderation (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, Keltner, 2008), stimulation of the vagus nerve can have positive effects on our physical, emotional, mental, and social health. This can be particularly useful in times of stress, when we are prone to let fear take over our systems. Something as simple as a long hug may initiate the vagus response. If you are alone, try spending a few minutes breathing deeply and lying on the ground so that the forehead, chest, and stomach are in contact with the foundation of the ground beneath you. Lying on your belly, draw attention inward toward the center of the body, perhaps even envisioning this physiological viaduct activating with each breath. Or, perhaps if you are stuck in traffic and need a quick fix, simply place your hand on your heart and chest, allowing yourself to sense the vitality of this magnificent nerve that connects with your beating heart, and breathe deeply for a few minutes. These quick and simple actions can send a physiological signal to your brain that any perceived threats in the environment can be reframed as challenges that you are capable of facing.
We often falsely assume that the security and comfort that we seek will be found outside of ourselves: in the perfect relationship, career, environment, etc. But what we are coming to realize as we explore the neuroscience of the vagus nerve is that at least a portion of this comfort, healing, and connection can be found within our own bodies. Don't be fooled, it's not as easy as swallowing a pill and waiting for the effects. In order to truly experience the gifts of the vagus nerve, we are required to direct our attention inward and fully inhabit our bodies, which is something that can be difficult, even counterintuitive, when we are feeling anxious or fearful. It's much easier to look for quick and easy distractions, to ignore our bodies altogether.
I have been thinking a lot about this powerful bundle of nerves, and how we might find our way back inward during times of stress. It is my belief, supported by years of research in the field of embodied cognition, that the quickest shortcut to changing our mindset is through some form of physical, embodied practice. In honor of this extraordinary physiological viaduct for self-healing, I have created a short and quick sequence of yoga asanas, intended to stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby activate your innate capacity for relaxation and connection. Finally, I leave you with a quote by Eve Ensler that serves as a nice accompaniment to the yoga sequence I am sharing. I suggest using these words as a meditation and reminder when you need to reconnect to your own body and heart: "I feel therefore I am. I feel therefore I can feel my existence. I feel my body. I feel the breath. I feel the living, breathing fiber that is humanness." - Eve Ensler
Background music by: Higher Planes Drifter "Yesterday's Demons are Tomorrow's Angels" https://soundcloud.com/higherplanesdrifter
DiSalvo, D. (2009). Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts. Scientific American Mind, 20(5), 18-19.
Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: too much of a good thing? Emotion, 8(1), 23.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. WW Norton & Company.
Porges, S. W., Doussard‐Roosevelt, J. A., & Maiti, A. K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2‐3), 167-186.