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.