Our autonomic nervous system is constantly working, whether we realize it or not. We all have an autonomic nervous system that regulates our responses in any given situation- whether it is feeling safety with a close friend or family member, being open to new experiences, feeling unsettled or anxious, or feeling like we may be or are in some kind of danger. Our autonomic nervous system is constantly working below our level of consciousness, responsible for our fight, flight or freeze responses well before we can logically decide to fight, flight, or freeze. Throughout time many of us come to recognize which situations, places, or people make us feel “good” or “settled” as well as situations, places, or people that make us feel “unsettled,” “down,” or “anxious.” Obviously, the list of emotions could go on and on as our autonomic responses are unique to each individual person and the situation at hand.
We may wonder, well if this is a process below the conscious level, how can I control how my body responds in any given situation? Although, we can only control so much of our surroundings, we do have control over ourselves and bodies and how we attempt to regulate them. The Vagus Nerve(s) control the nerves in our parasympathetic nervous system which you may know as the “Rest and Digest” system. The Vagus is located at the brain stem, which is right at the base of our neck, it is easy to locate and is also a place where we can regulate ourselves by massaging the small indention located between the back of our neck and head. The Vagus travels through our bodies in two separate directions which is why you may hear “Vagus Nerves” instead of it being referred to as one, singular Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerves travel downward and upward- downward through our lungs, heart, diaphragm, and stomach, as well as upward that connects the nerves through the neck, throat, eyes, and ears. This is an important piece to remember as we see a variety of skills we can use below to help regulate our Vagus Nerves to increase feelings of safety, connection, and all over comfortability in our bodies. We see a variety of skills below that include somatic techniques such as massage on certain points of our bodies, tapping, bilateral stimulation, exposure to different temperatures, every-day activities that we already may do, breathing exercises, and even specific foods to increase Ventral Vagal Regulation.
Skills to help regulate your Vagus Nerve(s):
Cold Water Exposure:
Cold Water Exposure can be achieved in a multitude of ways, this could look like taking a cold shower or making the last or first few minutes of your shower cold, dipping your face, hands, or feet into a bowl or tub of cold water, putting a cold washcloth over your face, and/or jumping into a cold body of water (safely). By doing this cold-water exposure, we are triggering our body into a parasympathetic state, meaning our body will begin to relax. We may notice our heart rate slowing as we do this exercise.
There are multiple points on our face, ears, and neck that we can learn to massage to stimulate our Vagus nerve(s) which in turn will help us regulate our bodies. For our face, we can massage or lightly rub our eyes which can stimulate the Vagus nerve(s) and relax our bodies as well as massage our temples on both sides of the head. For our ears, we can massage right behind the lower part of our ear, where we may feel the upper parts of our jaw. For our neck, we can massage at the base of our skull, where we find a small indention between our neck and the beginning of our spinal cord. We can also massage right below our jaw line on our neck to help stimulate the Vagus nerve(s). Each of these points on our face, ears, and necks can be done on our own but it may also benefit if we have a trusted person that can do this for us.
Tapping on certain points of our bodies can help relax our system and stimulate the Vagus Nerve(s). Here are a few points to consider tapping: (1) crown or top of the head, (2) above an eyebrow, (3) side of the eye, (4) underneath the eye, (5) right beneath the nose, (6) chin, (7) collar bone, (8) underneath the arm pit. It can be helpful to focus on one side of the body while doing these points such as the right side for the eyebrow, side of the eye, underneath the eye, collarbone, and arm pit. You can do both sides at different times and may even find a preferred side or preferred tapping point.
Bilateral Simulation Exercise & Music:
Bilateral Stimulation of any kind has been found to increase production of both dopamine and serotonin in the brain and body. Bilateral Stimulation works by helping both the left and right hemispheres of the brain settle, which can be extremely beneficial when feeling overwhelmed, dysregulated, and even in memory re-processing. Bilateral Stimulation may look like giving yourself a hug and tapping both sides of your arms while hugging yourself, moving your eyes back and forth or from left to right, alternating stomping both right and left feet, alternating between tapping right and left sides of body or head, and lastly, listening to bilateral stimulation music that alternates between the left and right ears. Bilateral stimulation music can easily be found by a You Tube search.
Both swallowing and gargling can stimulate the Vagus nerve(s) as this allows us to produce saliva which in turn triggers our body into a relaxed, parasympathetic state. Gargling works a little differently than swallowing, as gargling allows for activation of our vocal cords which also stimulates the Vagus nerve(s).
Deep Breathing/Long Sighs:
Deep breathing and long sighs can assist with slowing our heart rate which in turn stimulates our Vagus nerve(s) into a relaxation state.
Sour Candy can help stimulate our Vagus nerve(s) as well as assist greatly during any panic/anxiety attacks as it helps with the production of saliva which is typically cut down while we’re in a state of panic or fight/flight. Saliva production therefore increases feelings of calm and regulation and helps us travel back into a parasympathetic state.
The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation By: Deb Dana
Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection By: Deb Dana
Anchored By: Deb Dana
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