Recruiting the Vagus Nerve – Take a step back

This is the second in the series Recruiting the Vagus Nerve: the best friend you didn’t know you had.

Self-distancing is a powerful intervention – some people call them hacks or manoeuvres – to recruit the Vagus Nerve, that wonderful friendly nerve that controls the relaxation response of our Autonomic Nervous System. This is the tend and befriend ground or circuit of safety and connection. When we activate the vagal pathways of the Parasympathetic System, we reduce stress, anxiety and anger, as well as reducing lethargy, low motivation, and inflammation. We improve immune response, breathing, cardiac health, digestion, and lots more. The activity of the Vagus Nerve is measured as vagal tone, so the better we get at recruiting the Vagus Nerve the more we improve what our ‘vagal tone’. You can think of it as a singer toning the voice.

These interventions that target the Vagus Nerve also do something quite remarkable and unexpected – they reduce egocentric bias, that is, the tendency to over-emphasize our own personal view and experience at the expense of a broader perspective. Vagus Nerve activity reduces our tendency to over-analyze and ruminate on our emotions and reactions, hopes and fears. The Vagus Nerve helps us to be less self-conscious, which is always a liberating trend.

A number of scientific research studies have shown that techniques that involve a practice called self-distancing actually reduce this egocentric bias and improve vagal tone – our ability to self-regulate through recruiting the Vagus Nerve.

What is ‘self-distancing’? Self-distancing is developing an observer part of our consciousness. It’s getting out of our story – of predictions or fantasies about the future, if I do this then this might happen. Equally, it releases us from raking over the past which often keeps us trapped in negative thought-loops or obsessive nostalgia. Self-distancing is the opposite of self-immersion. Self-immersion always keeps us from experiencing the present moment because it involves thinking about the self instead of being the self.

According to research, when people adopt a self-distanced perspective while discussing a past difficult event or imagining a difficult future event, they make better sense of their reactions, experience less emotional distress, and display fewer physiological signs of stress, which is reflected in healthier cardiovascular activity. They also experience reduced reactivity when remembering the same problematic event weeks or months later, and they are less vulnerable to recurring thoughts (or rumination).

You can do this consciously, but this tendency can also begin to emerge as a side-effect of mindfulness and yoga techniques which train us to practice observing the body.

TECHNIQUES FOR SELF DISTANCING:

In one study, participants were put into one of three groups. One group performed a traditional “expressive writing” task, with instructions to wear their heart on their sleeve and write freely about their “strongest and deepest emotions.” Another group was told to engage in “narrative expressive writing”, in which they created a “coherent and organized narrative” of their marital separation with a storyline arc with a beginning, middle, and end. The third group given an emotionally neutral writing task. Participants assigned to the “narrative expressive writing” group showed the greatest reduction in cardiovascular markers for stress as well as an increase in heart rate variability (HRV). They found that people who had the best results used the question what instead of why did because why questions encourage a lot of fantasizing.

  1. TAKE THE PERSPECTIVE OF AN OBSERVER: It’s hard to stop this mental chatter altogether, so a technique that people have found useful is to imagine a stressful future or past event like a fly on the wall. This is a step towards developing what is called ‘witness consciousness’ in yogic traditions or ‘observer consciousness’. A number of studies have shown that people feel less anxious when they imagine a future stressful event – like public speaking or an upcoming interview – as an outside observer.
  2. USE THE THIRD PERSON WHEN SELF-REFERENCING: Saying your name out loud, or even in your head, when self-referencing can have the effect of encouraging a less emotional response to events. If you’re have a tough day getting motivated, you can talk yourself through the steps you need to take – like getting in the shower, making breakfast, and so on as if you are your own coach. You can even give yourself encouragement, like “Don’t worry, you can do this.” Positive self-talk in the third person can help to transform negative thoughtform loops by replacing self-criticism with self-care. In other words, we talk to ourselves the way we would talk to a friend.
  3. NARRATIVE EXPRESSIVE JOURNALING Research shows that just 20 minutes of “narrative expressive writing” over a three day period can trigger a physiological chain reaction that was found to improve Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals that indicates cardiovascular health and is how vagal tone is measured.

Self-distancing helps us to maintain that BIG PICTURE – viewing our prospects from a third-person perspective helps us to notice things that we might easily miss when we’re all tangled up with it. We miss the wood for the trees, as it were. Self-distancing helps us to be MORE OBJECTIVE which in turn, helps us to take things less personally. And perhaps the greatest gift of self-distancing is the effect of SELF-FRIENDING. Developing this observer self brings in a kinder and less judgmental point of view. It is often easier to have a calm and wise perspective on a friend’s problems but less easy to have that same perspective towards our own.

With the gentle art of self-distancing, we can finally be that friend to ourselves that we try to be for others.

Featured photo by: Angela Hogg

1. The art of self-distancing https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201901/the-art-self-distancing

2. Regarding stressful events as an observer https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0019205

3. Third person self-referencing. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/self-talk-using-third-person-pronouns-hacks-your-vagus-nerve

4. Narrative expressive journaling as a tool for self-distancing https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/narrative-expressive-journaling-could-help-your-vagus-nerve

Here comes (and goes) the sun



As the Winter is firming its grip upon those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, I find myself contemplating the centrality of the sun in our lives. How all life, animal and vegetable, depend upon it. How it provides us with Vitamin D for healthy bones and resistance to respiratory illnesses, and now the growing evidence that the sun improves the health of our heart and even lowers blood pressure. And then there is that whole soul-to-toe gratitude we can feel in its presence that sometimes borders on bliss, especially when we’ve been deprived of the warmth and caress of sunlight for long periods of time.

Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is the perfect yoga sequence to add to any morning routine, or to do on its own. It involves a flow of forward and backward bends together with hip and shoulder openers. It’s a sequence that engages the entire body, both the right and left sides in equal measure. It can be performed at various speeds in a flow of balanced movement, offering the same time to each posture. Traditionally, it is performed at dawn facing an easterly direction, but if this isn’t possible, you can imagine the rising sun in your mind’s eye.

At the start and end of each round, we perform ‘namaskar mudra’ — bringing the hands together with the backs of the thumbs gently pressing the sternum at the location of the heart (Skt. anahata) chakra. Anahata translates, poignantly, to ‘unhurt’. This in itself is worth a few moments of reflection. The mudra is a tactile reminder of our deeper identity. Just as the sun is the heart of our solar system, the heart—not the brain—is where eastern wisdom traditions place the seat of the mind as the centre of our conscious experience. The mudra is also a reminder of the powerful connection between the sun and the heart that wisdom traditions have long known about and cardiovascular clinicians are presently discovering.

Some say that Surya Namaskar originated two and a half millennia ago, but as tempting as it is to evoke ancient mystical origins, this seems rather doubtful. The sequence is not mentioned in any text on Hatha Yoga, nor in the ancient Vedic texts, not even by Patanjali, considered the father of yoga and the author of the Yoga Sutras. As much as it might be tempting to mystify its origins, it appears that Surya Namaskar, at least as we know it today, was developed as a military exercise as late as the 17th century as part of physical preparedness training for the army of a powerful Indian warrior-king named Shivaji Bhonsle I (pronounced bhoh-slai). Yoga actually fell out of fashion in India in the modern era, but since 2016 the Indian army has begun incorporating Surya Namaskar this sequence into its training exercises.

There is a meditative effect that you can experience on your own as you deepen the practice. Coordinating the movements with the breath activates the regulatory capacities of the nervous system. Delicate, slow, conscious nasal breathing, especially exhales, calms the mind by shifting awareness from the external to the internal landscape. Each posture counter-balances the preceding one, so that the distribution pattern of load bearing on the limbs ensures that none of the joints are over-stressed. A common practice sequence is 3 full rounds, which means 6 half rounds, but even one full round will make you feel more alert and more ready to face the day. Different yoga traditions teach different variations of this sequence and if you search on Youtube you can surely find a sequence that feels right for you. In this way, you can keep a little sun within you even during the dark days.

The Vagus Nerve, Yoga and the Heart

With all the focus on aerobic exercise, you could be forgiven for thinking that what your heart wants is for you to constantly running, swimming or cycling. But a number of Vagus nerve anatomy, illustrationmedical studies are showing that practicing yoga can significantly contributes to cardiovascular health. These days, doctors and other health practitioners are increasingly recognizing the benefits of yoga for the healthy functioning of the heart. More research, particularly in the past five years, is revealing how regular yoga practice can help to manage the levels of cortisol and adrenaline – the fight or flight/stress hormones – that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and put pressure on the heart by narrowing the arteries and raising blood pressure.
This calming effect on the body and mind is due in large part to the activity of the Vagus Nerve, that has been dubbed the “air traffic controller” of our nervous system. The Vagus is our largest cranial nerve, connecting the brain to the rest of the body via the facial muscles, heart, lungs, digestive tract, kidneys and reproductive organs. The Vagus Nerve plays a key role in the function of the parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘all-safe’ response) and helps to regulate many bodily functions including breathing, digestion as well as how we receive and interpret information from our environment, in particular our social environment.

What is fascinating cardiologists is the connection between the Vagus Nerve and the heart. They have discovered that the Vagus Nerve regulates heart rate through electrical signals and the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It is this neurotransmitter that tells our lungs to breathe. And here lies a key. If our body is getting flooded with stress signals what can we do? It turns out that we can indirectly stimulate the Vagus Nerve (and thus develop a more finely tuned response to danger and safety) by working with the areas and functions that it controls; throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs, but especially by working with our breath.

Pranayama, the kind of slow, rhythmic abdominal breathing that we learn to do in yoga has been shown to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and improve what is called ‘vagal tone’—that is, the body’s ability to accurately interpret signals of danger and safety and to better cope with stress. This practice, embedded for centuries within ancient wisdom traditions, is fast coming to be seen an advanced biohack technique and a promising part of the future of medicine.

For information email: lavieenyoga@gmail.com
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Respect yourself, explore yourself.
Rebecca