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Research into the fabulous vagus nerve is a gift that keeps on giving. Activating the vagus supports people to be less depressed, enhances the immune system, including regulation of inflammation, and reduces pain. The first section is a summary from Dacher Keltner of some vagal highlights. The second section has some tips on working with the vagus from a biodynamic craniosacral therapy perspective.

How can you become a vagal superstar? How can you help your clients become vagal superstars?

Vagal superstars

The following are all features of the vagus according to Dacher Keltner (1), researcher and author of ‘Born to be Good’.

  • The vagus nerve is almost like an alternative spinal cord.
  • When you stimulate the vagus you improve people’s capacity to make decisions, this is true of the vagus nerve but not so much the spinal cord.
  • The vagus stimulates the release of oxytocin.
  • It optimises your heart rate. It evolved to support communication, social engagement and prosocial emotions such as compassion.
  • Nice touch to the back, you see a smiling face, (compassion towards) images of harm; these all cause the vagus nerve to fire. It gives specific stimulation to emotional processing centres. (Italics added)
  • ‘Vagal superstars’ demonstrate elevated base activity in vagal tone. Vagal superstars are more generous, more trusted, and kids with high vagal tone break up play ground fights.

Tips on applying the vagal brake: increasing vagal tone inhibits the sympathetics

Enhance vagal tone

  • Stimulating the new vagus (2) is the best way of switching of the sympathetics and supporting homeostasis (3), (4).
  • Be soft, slow and present.

Engage the extensors

  • Think of a monkey grabbing onto a tree trunk; all the muscles being used are flexors and are associated with sympathetics, stress and making ourselves small. The sympathetics are switched on when we contract into the fetal position.
  • We are in parasympathetic mode when we come into an upright posture with the extensors engaged. We feel safe enough to show our belly, heart and throat. We can engage with our environment, make ourselves big and move towards new things.
  • On the treatment table you can engage the extensors by getting your client to orient to the back of the body: ‘Can you feel the weight of your body on the table? Push your elbows and/or feet into the table.’

Engage the feet

  • Loss of the vagal brake results in a surge upwards as we orient; the head gets hot and tight, there is increased activity in the neck, cranium, heart, and lungs. We lose relationship to the bottom of the body and tend to disappear from our belly and our feet.
  • Grounding, being present and firing in parasympathetics nearly always involves engaging the lower half of the body and feeling the feet.
  • On the treatment table keep asking people if they can feel the size, shape and weight of their feet and their belly. Be persistent.

Facts_of_back_pain_a_man_sitting_straight_in_chair

Go slow and embody vagal states

  • Words associated with the vagal activity are trust, love, compassion, acceptance, joy. Work to find these qualities in your own body as you treat. The clients body will mirror your state.
  • Think of a perfect lazy afternoon, full of a delicious dinner, in front of a warm fire, cosy in a chair, chatting with old friends……

Know the anatomy of the vagus and its ganglia

  • The vagus can be influenced by supporting change around the jugular foramen, the superior and inferior sensory ganglia below the jugular foramen, the carotid sheath, the larynx (4), the tragus of the ear, freedom in the breath and diaphragm, and resolving inertia in and around organs (especially the heart, lungs and sub diaphragm organs) to free up vagal motor ganglia and the enteric nervous system.
The Vagus. Left: The territory innervated by the paired vagus nerves above and below the diaphragm.     Right: Vagus nerves in black, and sympathetics in white, supply the heart and organs above the diaphragm.

The Vagus. Left: The territory innervated by the paired vagus nerves above and below the diaphragm.
Right: Vagus nerves in black, and sympathetics in white, supply the heart and organs above the diaphragm.

(1)  Keltner D. (2009) Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. 1st Ed, W. W. Norton & Company. See also Dacher Keltner in Conversation. http://fora.tv/2009/02/05/Dacher_Keltner_in_Conversation.

(2) The ‘new vagus’ refers to the mylinated vagus controlled by the ventral vagus complex (nucleus ambiguus) that co-ordinates oxygen control inline with muscles of facial expression. Porges, S. (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York: Norton

(3) ‘The relative sympathetic activation seen in anxiety disorders may represent dis-inhibition due to faulty inhibitory mechanisms.’ The vagus inhibits the sympathetics.   – Thayer J. and Lane R. (2000) ‘A model of neurovisceral integration in emotion regulation and dysregulation.’ Journal of Affective Disorders 61, 201–216.

(4) ‘We propose that these findings have important implications for the understanding of the two-way communication between the heart and the brain, and provide a connection among negative emotions and negative health consequences via the common mechanism of autonomic imbalance and low parasympathetic activity.’  – Thayer J. and Ruiz-Padial E. (2006) Neurovisceral integration, emotions and health: An update. International Congress Series 1287 (2006) 122–127

(4) ‘The vagus nerve innervates the larynx’ it carries ‘general sensation, including pain, touch and temperature’ from the larynx. –  Laryngeal nerve anatomy: emedicine.medscape.com accessed Feb 2014.

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