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.


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

2. Regarding stressful events as an observer

3. Third person self-referencing.

4. Narrative expressive journaling as a tool for self-distancing

Recruiting the Vagus Nerve: the best friend you didn’t know you had

The Vagus nerve is a master nerve that controls various functions of the heart, lungs, stomach and intestines. Without it we would be in constant fight-or-flight stress mode and we would quite simply keel over and die – probably from a heart attack.

My interest in this work is largely informed by my own past experiences with depression and anxiety forced me to go ever deeper and to seek underlying causes for my condition. When I discovered the work of scientist Dr. Stephen Porges and read about his Polyvagal Theory a thousand lights went off in my head.

In this journey, I have discovered some fundamental practices that can dramatically change how we experience ourselves in the world. These practices bring together eastern wisdom traditions with modern science in very exciting ways that link together physical, mental, emotional and spiritual performance; cardiologists, therapists especially trauma therapists, sports coaches, educators, and yoga teachers, are just some of the professions that are benefiting enormously from these discoveries.

But this information is relevant to all of us. Because what the science of the Vagus Nerve is teaching us that we all have the power to engage with our fundamental states or grounds of being. We can find a greater sense of connection with ourselves and with others, to experience more peace, acceptance, courage, compassion, humour, creativity and playfulness. We will learn why it is important to trust our gut instinct and how to reconnect with that again – and why quality social interaction is so essential and part of what makes us human. We can become more skilled navigators of our social and emotional worlds and understand how our ideas about ourselves sometimes impede our full experience of ourselves.

Understanding the Vagus Nerve will give us insight into what fundamental forces are really driving us as human beings – how simple, powerful, and beautiful they are – and how to work WITH these forces rather than against them.

Leonardo Da Vinci was drawing the Vagus Nerve 500 years ago, but in the past 5 years the subject has exploded with dozens of books on the subject. In this Youtube video I introduce the series with a basic overview of the Vagus Nerve (think learning your way around a car and possibly doing an oil change but not becoming a full mechanic) and why I call it the best friend you never knew you had.

So what is the Vagus Nerve? The Vagus Nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in the body. Most importantly it is the main driver of our parasympathetic nervous system, what is generally called the ‘rest and digest’ mode. But it is much more than this. The Vagus Nerve is actually 2 nerves, the left and the right, but it’s referred to as a singularity. The word ‘vagus’ comes from the Latin for wanderer because this nerve wanders around the body. It’s where we get the word ‘vagabond’ and ‘vagrant’. It looks a bit like a very elongated jellyfish and it goes from the brain down either side of the neck with branches that go to the outer ear, into the muscles of the face, the throat and the larynx, and down into the heart, the lungs and the digestive organs. Understanding where the Vagus Nerve wanders in the body is key to understanding why the interventions that you’ll learn in this series work to foreground this nerve.

What does it mean to recruit the Vagus Nerve?

80% of the nerve fibres which comprise the Vagus Nerve are afferent – meaning that they TAKE information FROM the body TO the BRAIN. This is key to tuning in to this alternative approach to wellbeing that we can call BOTTOM UP, as opposed to TOP DOWN. To RECRUIT the Vagus Nerve means optimizing conditions for this nerve to signal to the higher brain centres that we are safe, that we are not under threat. And when we feel safe, all kinds of wonderful things begin to happen. we can express the parts of ourselves that we have kept hidden, perhaps because we felt too vulnerable to express them: compassion, creativity, courage and curiosity, to name a few. Are you beginning to see how important nervous system literacy can be to our mental and physical wellbeing?

How do we recruit the Vagus Nerve?

This is what I’m going to get into in this series. RECRUITING THE VAGUS NERVE – THE BEST FRIEND YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU HAD. We’re going to explore together dozens of simple interventions that you can do at home, that don’t require expensive equipment, most of them don’t require anything at all other than a present body and an open mind. I will do my best to post one intervention a week. I’m excited to be on this journey with you. As always, respect yourself, explore yourself.

LOCKDOWN YOGA: Vagus nerve hack for neck tension, anxiety and more

From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. This fast, effective (and very cool) biohack begins with a demonstration of how movement of our eyes muscles connects to the suboccipital muscles at the back of the neck where the skull meets the spine. Yes, you really DO have eyes in the back of your head! Decompression of these muscles reduces tension in the neck, helps alleviate headaches, anxiety, sleep disorders and depression, and has been found to stimulate the Vagus nerve, a key factor in regulating the autonomic nervous system for overall well being. This is followed by the BASIC EXERCISE developed by Dr. Stanley Rosenberg that you can read about in his book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve.

LOCKDOWN YOGA: Diaphragmatic breathing and the yogic breath

From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. Today it’s all about abdominal-diaphramatic breathing. This kind of breathing – called the ‘yogic breath’ is fundamental not only to yogic practice but to our general well-being. Learn how to re-connect with this unique muscle that provides the key to navigating between the conscious and unconscious, between the external and energetic dimensions of our experience.

References include: Dr. Stephen Porges and Polyvagal Theory; Deb Dana (author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy) and Stephen Cope Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.