Research-proven: the vagus nerve is a key to well-being

Research-proven: the vagus nerve is a key to well-being

Original publication in Medium.com on december 19th 2019

“There’s a massive bioelectrical and biochemical series of events that the vagus nerve is responsible for, and all that is almost impossible to map.”

Written by Markham Heid

How about closing your eyes…right now?

How about closing your eyes…right now?

Most jobs are now performed in front of a computer screen and it is very easy to get tired. For an immediate refresh, close your eyes for a few seconds, then let go of all the muscles around the eyes. The University of Surrey scientists even say that shutting eyes frees up brainpower!

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
I practice instant relaxation, closing my eyes a few seconds, several times per day.

10 Tips for Rest, Recovery and Rejuvenation

10 Tips for Rest, Recovery and Rejuvenation

Written by by 

The Season for Stillness

We tumble to the end of another warp-speed year. We spin through our tasks and grasp at floods of information.

We press too hard, too fast and for too long. Reservoirs are sucked dry. Self-awareness fades. Self-regulation is impaired. Your health and your relationships are at risk.

It is time to slow down, repair, rejuvenate and reconnect with what matters.

In a world of optimisation, ambition, pride and duty, we push hard on multiple fronts. The rest, recovery and rejuvenation cycle is squeezed out between ever shorter bursts of dopamine. We are child-like in our impulsive tapping, swiping, checking, buying, rushing, feeding… compelled to chase the next hit.

As I come to the end of 2019, I feel battered. My mind is a little flat. Attention is fragile. Relationships are edgy. I know I need a good break. I am struggling to disconnect, calm my hypervigilance, and allow the natural cycle of recovery. I sense it in our family, friends and colleagues.

Rest, recovery and rejuvenation (R3) is the next competitive edge. Ironic!

My end of year message it to give rest, recovery and rejuvenation your full attention.

At a cellular level, the R3 cycle is vital to repair and rejuvenation. It is the key to longevity and sits at the biochemical core of fasting, sleep quality, intense activity, meditation, and cold water baths. It is a promising solution that supports this process of slowing, cleaning and repairing hard working cells.

The R3 cycle is key to musculoskeletal strength and physical wellbeing. Intimacy, touch and dreaming (REM) sleep stimulate the R3 cycle for emotional wellbeing. The default network is the R3 cycle for cognition allowing us to focus, engage and refresh our minds.

Our end-of-year pause is an opportunity to capture the R3 cycle for life and family. Please make an effort to allow for adequate rest, recovery and rejuvenation as your year comes to an end. Engage your family in this process so that you may reconnect in more intimate ways.

Share what works well for you.

Calm, Control and Connect

Calm, Control and Connect

The untapped power in your Vagus Nerve

Imagine you are surprised by an unexpected reward at your end-of-year function. You are asked to step up to the stage. With a trained vagus nerve, you notice surprise and weakness in your limbs but within milliseconds you become calm, control the anxiety and connect to the occasion with pleasure and gratitude. Your acceptance speech resonates.

With a neglected vagus nerve, you panic. Your mouth is dry, vision blurs, you feel too weak to move, your heart is thumping, and you can barely make it up the stairs. When you try to say thanks, your mind freezes, and nothing comes out. Embarrassing for all of us.

Best you understand how to work with your vagus nerve.

First introduced in 2012 by Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory has become a powerful concept with a range of practical applications.

What you will learn:

  1. The vagus nerve: what it is and how it works in your life
  2. The physical mechanisms of freeze, fight and flight
  3. The learned skills of relaxation, connecting and finding flow
  4. How you might recover from confusing adversities in life
  5. How vagus training can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure,
  6. What you can do to increase the power (tone) of your vagus nerve
  7. How Vagal Tone underpins mental health, wellbeing and resilience

Fast Theory

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve which exits low in the skull, runs down both sides of the neck and into the lungs and heart before diving down into the abdomen. It is a very long and critically important nerve for life. For a deeper dive, please follow the references.

The vagus nerve works with other cranial nerves to influence and modulate our facial expressions, head movement and tracking, hearing and voice. In the chest it influences breathing and controls heart rate – speed and variability. In the abdomen it influences peristalsis (food movement), gut neurology, bacteria, inflammation. Further, it is a key element of urination, bowel movements and sex. It works in synchrony with your sympathetic system or causes chaos.

Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical structure scheme and location diagram of human body longest nerve. Infographic with isolated ganglion, branches and plexus. Inner biological ANS. (Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical)

The dorsal vagus fibres are ancient (reptiles) and slow. The ventral vagus fibres are much newer in evolution (mammals) and can be trained. Polyvagal theory dissolves confusing concepts like PTSD, autism, anxiety and psychological safety into a clear and testable biological reality. This leads to a set of practices to be safe, well and effective in life.

The Vagus Nerve and Sympathetic System in Action

Each of these reactions or responses are possible and available to us. Consider some of the more challenging situations you might face and see if you can recognise the pattern.

Freeze (old or dorsal vagus) reactions:

  • Old reptilian reflexes to extreme threat (play dead)
  • Blood pressure drops, bowels and bladder can void
  • Can be a feint, collapse or tears
  • Poses risk to human brain as blood flow drops
  • Executed by the body to protect the body
  • May leave us with confusion, regret or even guilt
  • Experienced in extreme threat such as war, natural disaster or abuse

Application: when we are truly overwhelmed this is the best option. We collapse, look dead and lose feeling. Those suffering PTSD may find comfort and healing by understanding their reaction was the body’s reaction rather than their failure to fight. Aspects of depression such as loss of energy, fatigue, confusion, self doubt and reduced motivation might be linked.

Fight (sympathetic system and anger) reactions:

  • Body floods with adrenaline increasing blood pressure and pulse
  • Blood flows to combat muscles – face, jaw, neck, shoulders and chest
  • Associated with a flare of inflammation
  • Narrow vision and focus on threat can lead to poor risk assessment
  • Can leave us with impaired memory and regret
  • Experienced when violence or force may help you counter a threat

Application: When we see anger this way, it is a destructive force to entertain in your body. The inflammation, immune system compromise and heart damage is well documented. It must be used sparingly if at all.

Flight (sympathetic system and fear) reactions:

  • Adrenaline charges the heart and lungs
  • Blood shunts to the large muscles of lower limbs
  • Inflammation follows
  • Thinking is disabled but may still lead to regret
  • Underpins phobia reactions (fear of heights, spiders, etc.)
  • Usually the best of a bad choice

Application: flight, fear, anxiety and worry are all linked. In PTSD, phobias, panic and generalised anxiety, we cannot contain the flight reaction. Our bodies have ‘run away’. This is the most common form of suffering experienced today. If we can see it we can train as below.

The Vagus Nerve has three trainable levels

The human vagus nerve can be trained to work better. Firstly, we learn how to fire the ventral fibres. These relax and rejuvenate us restoring peace after freeze, fight and flight. Second, with repeated practice such as with rehearsal practices, breath training or meditation, the vagal nerve becomes myelinated. A fatty sheath enfolds the ventral fibres accelerating their action on the body – specifically heart, lungs, inflammation and gut.

Once we calm and control the primal reactions, now the vagus connections to the face, ears and voice become active. Heart rate variability increases. We actively seek connection. Myelination of the vagus is more advanced.

Finally, feeling safe and connected we have a strong platform for play, curiosity and performance. Now we have high functioning vagus nerve which is well myelinated and we have rehearsed and practiced tricky situations so much we actually look forward to challenges.

Let’s explore those three levels:

Calm and Control:

  • Ventral fibres of the vagus activate and initiate calm and control
  • Heart rate slows and heart rate variability increase
  • Lungs relax, diaphragm engages, and inflammation clears
  • Hearing improves and voice softens
  • Head movement, tracking and balance improve
  • Awareness of body, emotion and thought sharpens
  • Thinking, idea-generation and decision-making improves

Application: Calm and control is the foundation of safety and wellbeing. Without it, we increase the risk of ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, PTSD and Depression. Basic breathing techniques, neck massage, meditation and cold water can help. A supportive person with kind eyes and a melodic voice can help some activate this response. Sleep improves and health improves.

Control and Connect:

  • Now calm and safe, our attention focuses on the situation
  • We can hear voices of those who matter more clearly
  • Our voice becomes mellow and prosodic
  • We establish a relaxed and enjoyable eye contact
  • Facial expressions around eyes increase
  • Empathy increases – physical, emotional and mental signals
  • Honesty, intimacy and respectful sharing come naturally

Application: As we power up our capacity to connect through eye contact, voice and touch, we heal autism, loneliness, depression and anxiety. We are establishing the foundations for high trust, collaborative relationships. Happiness, enjoyment of life and vitality flourish.

Connect, Play and Flow:

  • Feeling safe, energised and connected the impulse to play arises
  • Laughter, provocation, chase and evade emerge
  • The sympathetic system is engaged with vagal tone high
  • Play is how all young mammals learn to survive
  • Physical interactive play trains us to perform (sport, drama, combat)
  • Eye contact, prosodic voice, facial expressions and respect sustain it
  • This is how we develop the capacity for Flow

Application: when thinking stops, time pauses, and grace unfolds we are in play or flow. Your vagus nerve is a force for joy, success and meaning in life. You have put the time into practice. You have done your drills and had plenty of failures. Your ability to be relaxed, flexible, connected and effective is established.

Once can imagine your vagus nerve is thick and glistening. It works really quickly now. In the beginning you lay awake in anxiety and hyperventilated for hours. Now your vagus detects your body’s freeze, fight and flight reactions before you do. It has already restored calm, control and reconnected you to what really matters.

Practical tools to increase vagal tone

  • Breathe out long and slow followed by a pause
  • Establish and train your diaphragmatic breathing (8 min/day)
  • Learn a contemplative practice – meditation, yoga, kindness
  • Splash cold water on your face or swim underwater
  • Whole body, foot or neck massage
  • Gargling water and fasting
  • Listening to prosodic music (Abba, Johnny Mathis)
  • Laughter and singing
  • Face-to-face connection (and yes, less device time)
  • Unstructured play and structured practice or rehearsal
  • Sunshine and vitamin D collaborate with the vagus nerve effects

References:

  1. Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2012
  2. Stephen Porges, The Pocketguide to Polyvagal Theory, 2018
  3. Elizabeth Williams, Daily Vagus Nerve Exercise, 2019
  4. Robert Bright, The Polyvagal Theory, 2019
How, doing nothing can help you thrive ? Check these examples !

How, doing nothing can help you thrive ? Check these examples !

Original publication in Thrive Gobal on October 2nd 2019

Many of us are so accustomed to a packed schedule that when we finally find a bit of free time, we don’t always know what to do with it. With the pressure to be “always on” and the prevalence of hustle culture, it’s easy to feel bad when you have even a little time to dedicate to yourself. As a result, you can become too wrapped up in the guilt to actually enjoy it. But downtime is good for everyone, no matter how busy you are — studies have shown that embracing a quiet moment or time off can lead to increased productivity, focus, and energy. 

We asked members of the Thrive community to tell us about a time they overcame the anxiety of “doing nothing” and used that time to their benefit. Check out the different ways they turned it into an opportunity to thrive, and how you can do so, too. 

Add some color to your life

“For me, doing nothing has lead me to a fruitful space where my often over-stimulated brain can thrive. I have taken up coloring, which I always enjoyed as a child. The creativity that it allows, and the simple joy I derive from the activity allows for moments of pure pleasure. I go back to work refreshed after I’ve had my coloring time.” 

—Jennefer Witter, CEO, entrepreneur, and public speaker, New York, NY 

Tune into a greater purpose

“I took a year off after college to recover from the burnout of operating with an ‘always on’ mindset for so long. During this time, I still had many commitments and projects, but focused on developing a more balanced approach to productivity, which included being more intentional about doing nothing. The key for me was realizing that time spent doing nothing can still have a purpose, whether it’s self-care, health, or just having fun. Although these things may not further our endeavors in a literal sense, they have a great impact on our productivity and creativity.”

—Andrew Gobran, people operations generalist, Minneapolis, MN

Read for greater empathy 

“I work from home and it’s easy to feel like you have to be ‘on’ all the time. A few months ago, I decided that I would  use the time I’d normally spend commuting to tune back into my favorite hobby: reading. I used to read all the time, and it always helped me better understand people and lead with more empathy. Now that I’ve committed to this downtime, I have much more energy, and it’s done wonders for my stress levels and overall outlook. I make better human connections, and I’m doing better at my job, too.” 

—Rebecca Taylor, sales, New York, NY 

Plan quiet moments 

“I can’t remember the actual moment I surrendered my control over everything. It was more like a gradual deconstruction. It could have started with the realization of how much I had lost in terms of time. I may not have associated value with space until it seemed gone forever. I’m still an overachiever, a mother of three, and a business owner. But having felt a loss so great, I now plan moments where I am doing nothing. This involves letting everyone around me know I am having a moment — my phone will go on silent and nothing will be scheduled afterward. That’s the key: Surrender to the mess, say no, and create space.” 

—Ali Davies, entrepreneur, New Zealand

Let your mind wander

“I have such an ‘on’ brain. Earlier this year, I found myself completely burned out — I was uninspired and completely devoid of joy in my work.  At my lowest, I reached out to my business community and offered to volunteer one day each week to help me find my mojo, but to also give my brain some off time. I helped my friend who is a ceramicist clean her studio and mix up glazes, and helped another friend make dog food, of all things! Through the process of standing on my feet, using my hands, and freeing up my mind to wander away from creative or strategic mode, I slowly came back to life. I’ve since stuck with the one day of helping or volunteering per week. I still get the same amount of work done in my business on a four day week, and I’m more creative after the day of chatting, marinating, and just “being” in manual labor.”

—Odette Barry, publicist and agency owner, Byron Bay, Australia

Spend time outside

“My husband and I became empty nesters in 2012. Initially, it was hard to deal with, especially since my husband had recently taken a new job and traveled for most of the week. I was truly home alone. At first, we started going out with friends and traveling together when he was home. We were trying to make up for all the quiet and alone time we now had. After a couple of years, we were even more exhausted than we were when we had the kids at home. Finally, we decided we could live wherever we wanted with his job. So we bought a small house and some land in the country. I found gardening, and I love it. I have also gotten back into reading. We have a hammock, and enjoy it under the moon and stars, and in the shade on a sunny day after working in the garden.”

—Becky C., office manager, Huntsville, TX

Embrace white space

“As a business owner, I used to think any time I didn’t spend working on — or thinking about — my business was time wasted. Then I suffered from burnout. I realized that no one is going to give me permission to slow down but me. Now I incorporate more white space — time where nothing is scheduled — and downtime, where I totally relax, into my schedule. I feel more creative, energized, and motivated every time I come back from a period of ‘doing nothing.’” 

—Stacey Hagen, coach and consultant, San Francisco, CA

Listen to what your mind and body tell you 

“I couldn’t wait to start an active daily schedule after I finished cancer treatment, but my body wasn’t ready to run — literally and figuratively. I had to learn to stop, slow down, and listen to what I needed. Though it was incredibly difficult at first — and sometimes still is — the lesson to slow down and do less completely changed my life for the better. I learned how to meditate, how to cook food that nourishes my body and soul, how long walks get me the movement and mindfulness I need, and I even started practicing calligraphy. In turn, my stress is much lower, my relationships with others are deeper, and my days are more meaningful. I can’t recommend learning how to ‘do nothing’ enough.”

—Calisa Hildebrand, communications, San Francisco, CA

By 

Take a Resilient Holiday

Take a Resilient Holiday

Take a Resilient Holiday

Whether or not you feel tired, it is critical to regularly take holidays and deeply recharge your batteries.

 It is scientifically established that taking vacations reduces the incidence of burnout. It also is the opportunity to reconnect with our friends, appreciate quality time with our loved ones, catch-up on sleep and exercise.

 The Resilience Institute Europe Team wishes you a lovely resilient break!