The vagus is one of the larger more important nerves in the human body. One key role that it plays is as the “reset” button to counteract when our alarm system has been set off resulting in the infamous fight, flight or freeze response as some type of threat has been perceived. The vagus nerve basically tells the body and brain: “It is safe now. The threat is gone. All bodily functions can return to normal now.”
The mechanisms probably worked great in the Neanderthal days when a saber tooth tiger might be looming on the horizon or outside the cave. What we may have now with an epidemic of high anxiety is a malfunctioning, overly-sensitive alarm system just like the car down the block that seems to blare at the slightest vibration.
Threats now setting off our alarm systems include possible job performance issues, paying bills, fears of romantic rejection, or even fears that people might see through our outer persona. Meanwhile, our calming system, the vagus nerve, may be underactive, almost having forgotten how to function. What can result is a worst case scenario where the alarm system (anxiety) is always on. The scary part is that we can get used to that while it wreaks havoc upon our bodies.
There is hope, however, in our good friend the vagus nerve. While we have to work on our alarm system not always going off, we can also work on stimulating our vagus nerve so that our body can remember how its calming system is supposed to work.
The most effective, natural method for stimulating the vagus nerve is deep, belly breath breathing that you typically associate with yoga and meditation. And think about it, air is the very first thing we need for survival, before water and food. Additionally, in yoga class you are turning your alarm systems off, often closing your eyes, trusting your instructor and letting yourself be vulnerable. Your valiant instructor will handle any saber tooth tiger that attempts to enter this safe, nurturing domain while you stimulate this precious nerve.
So when you are in yoga class or otherwise practicing these wise and slow breathing methods, you are working to re-balance what for many in our modern culture is an out-of-whack system. For those suffering from high anxiety, a conscious effort to implement this re-balancing act is imperative.
Research on the vagus nerve continues. It will likely hold key information on the mind-body connection. The nerve is bi-directional, meaning it sends messages from the brain to the body and vice versa. However, 80% of its capacity is directed towards channeling information from the body to the brain. It’s how the body talks to the brain.
Also note that the vagus nerve is the “vagabond” nerve that wanders around and surrounds our heart and core area. It is heart-centered and noted as the nerve of intuition and the nerve of compassion. When we feel safe, without threat or anxiety, these abilities and inclinations are free to expand. Not such a bad thing. Viva...or uh, long live the vagus nerve!