How are you?
I feel like it’s been a bit of a roller coaster here – fear, joy, sadness, hope, frustration – all the feels. Besides, there’s a strong collective sense of anxiety right now, and I don’t even watch the news. This collective fear makes me want to share some info about the way our nervous systems work. So please grab a cup of tea and come geek out with me.
Nervous System Basics
As you may know, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two parts – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The ANS regulates those functions which happen automatically without thought and intervention like breath, heartbeat, and digestion. Sympathetic is the fight or flight response, and parasympathetic is the rest, digest, and freeze response. When we feel anxious or stressed, it is our sympathetic nervous system that is activated.
Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, goes even further to say that the parasympathetic NS breaks down into two additional parts. The dorsal vagal complex and ventral vagal complex are inhibitory for the PNS. Now I know that’s a mouthful, but to break it down – the more tone your vagus nerve has – the greater ease you find returning to baseline after a stressful event. This tone is measurable by checking heart rate variability – the difference between heart rate when you inhale and exhale. The more significant the difference, the higher the tone.
Porges also theorizes that the autonomic nervous system’s evolution has created a social nervous system or social engagement system. This social nervous system is where we take cues from the world around us, our interactions with others, and our relationships to help create a sense of safety in the body.
I riff about it here in my Facebook group here:
(If you’re not already a member, this is your invitation).
As described by Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine:
The Polyvagal Theory provided us with a more sophisticated understanding of the biology of safety and danger, one based on the subtle interplay between the visceral experiences of our bodies and the voices and faces of the people around us. It explains why a kind face or a soothing tone of voice can dramatically alter the way we feel. It clarifies why knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm and safe and why being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse. It helped us understand why attuning with another person can shift us out of disorganized and fearful states. In short, Porges’ theory makes us look beyond the effects of fight or flight and put social relationships front and center in our understanding of trauma. It also suggested new approaches to healing that focus on strengthening the body’s system for regulating arousal.
So when I am in the grocery store and picking up on the collective anxiety, I feel the panic rise; I use the breath to create calm and soothe my nervous system. My favorite breath, which I share in the video above, is the 1:2 ratio breath. Inhale to a count of 4 – exhale to a count of 8. If 8 feels difficult, try 6. It isn’t that important how many seconds you inhale and exhale; what matters is that you create a steady rhythm and lengthen the duration of the exhale. Not only is this wonderful for developing vagal tone, but it also increases lung capacity. Try it and let me know how it feels!
Here are a few other evidence-backed ways to increase vagal tone, relieve stress, and calm anxiety:
1. Deep, slow belly breathing
2. Splash cold water on your face
3. Give someone a 20-second hug #hugsforvagaltone
4. Sing, hum, or chant
5. Practice loving-kindness meditation
6. Regulate your circadian rhythms with sun exposure early in the day and again before the sun sets
7. Widen your gaze to include an entire landscape instead of focusing on a small aspect or view
8. Practice Yoga, Meditation, Qi Gong, or any other contemplative healing practice that you love
And in all of this, remember most of all – have self-compassion. Whatever you are feeling is normal.
And here’s a poem I love that seems especially poignant right now:
The Guest House by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jalaluddin Rumi
Sending you love and warmth. I look forward to seeing you soon.