What is my vagus nerve and why would I want to reset it?
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
If you have never heard of the vagus nerve before, bear with me. This is new science, to me too, as well as to most mental healthcare professionals - but if you like a little science with your therapy, I will try to explain in as jargon-free a way as I can.
So. The story of the vagus nerve starts with the story of stress. We have all heard by now of the negative effects of stress on mental and physical health – but most of us haven’t heard much regarding what to do about it beyond taking medications to change our biology, and maybe some talk therapy to cope with its impact. We’re not even sure we know what stress IS. Considering the power stress can hold on our lives and our bodies, this uncertain situation needed to change.
Enter Polyvagal Theory, first formulated by Dr Stephen Porges in 1994. Fight-or-flight, or relaxation: before Porges, our understanding of our nervous systems was limited to these two states (you could also use the terms sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems respectively). Polyvagal Theory expands on this model by looking at the function of the vagus nerve, or tenth cranial nerve, found by the ancient Greek physician Galen when he was working with wounded gladiators. He named the nerve after the Greek word for wanderer, because it wanders all over the body, from brain to heart and lungs to digestive organs and all the way down the torso. It's the longest - and busiest - nerve in our bodies. And we have no conscious control over its function.
Our vagus nerves are active when we’re engaged in positive social behaviour – comfortable and relaxed, with people we care about and with whom we feel safe to be ourselves. Safety is the operative word here. We need to feel safe, and calm, in order to learn, heal, and grow – in order to feel a part of something, to be creative, to accomplish our best, and in order to feel joy.
The function of part of our vagus nerve, however, also includes fight or flight ("fear, mobilised"). And for the first time, Porges also identified a third function of the vagus nerve: shut down ("fear, immobilised"). He further identifies how these three states can interact (sympathetic, parasympathetic and "dorsal vagal" activation). Physiologically, we’re capable of more than a binary state, after all – put very simply, humans experience more than just feeling good or feeling fear; humans feel depressed as well.
Within Polyvagal Theory, good physical and mental health is defined by the ability to engage in positive social interactions. Talking with friends and family, and maybe talking to a therapist you like and trust, does keep us healthy and well, as has been established through scientific research for years. But what if we are experiencing chronic stress? What if we lack time or access to the relief we need from active, good relationships? What if we’re exposed again and again to attacks, macro and micro, to the balance of our nervous systems? We may fight or flee, yes – we may win battles, we may leave bad relationships, we may quit our jobs, we may move house to improve our lives.
But loads of us shut down first. And far too many of us get stuck there, feeling helpless and hopeless – many of us don’t have the choice, the money, or the power to fight or flee. And many of us suffer from our sense of self-worth and confidence having been beaten out of us, sometimes literally. We then tell ourselves that we should cope better, that we should be strong. If the massages and Xanax don’t snap us out of it, we resort to self-criticism. There’s something wrong with me, we think.
At worst, we can become stuck in a vicious cycle of fear and shut-down; a cycle of sleepless worry and hopelessness; a cycle of anxiety and depression.
Now for the useful part of the issue. Is there something we can do to help ourselves out of vagus nerve imbalance? Yes.
Polyvagal Theory is describing something we can all relate to, but we can go beyond the theories. What is most exciting to me as a therapist is that the practical solutions to resetting the vagus nerve are quick and easy, and many of them can be self-administered. This is what brought me to become a psychotherapist in the first place: positive change.
With simple vagus nerve resetting techniques, once vagus nerve tone has been reestablished, in as little as two minutes, the ability to experience positive social interactions is reestablished as well – with all the healing power that brings. The body is not defending itself any more, and is woken up from shut-down, too; so it’s also open to healing interventions from talk therapy, massage, osteopathy, and any kind of help towards balance, even the positive effects of a good conversation with a trusted friend. Furthermore, if the simple techniques of vagus nerve reset are repeated they can have a cumulative positive effect. Now, not only are you dealing with present stress, you are actually allowing every system in your body to access the innate healing mechanisms that we were all born with.
Here I have to thank Stanley Rosenberg, who published Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve in 2017. As a richly educated and experienced osteopath of many years, and as the founder of a teaching Foundation, Rosenberg is in a position to work with patients, run studies and see the results of using techniques based on polyvagal theory. The results he describes are astounding. He has helped patients with anxiety and depression, yes, but also COPD, skeletal pain, ADHD, bipolar disorder and even autism, to live full lives.
Many therapists have taken Rosenberg's work and run with it, so now on youtube you can find mind-body, vagus resetting ways to release anxiety and depression, ways to heal neck and shoulder pain, ways to restore healthy posture, and so on.
I wouldn’t recommend anything that I didn’t try myself, so I can say that working with practical polyvagal techniques has been a hit-the-jackpot way for me to feel better physically and emotionally. I just have more of the right tools in my toolbox, no matter what’s going on that I need to fix. I now have a much greater understanding of what’s happening physiologically with TAT, EFT, EMDR, and all the other wonderful energy therapies that I have studied and used for so many years, which is really pretty inspiring.
I am also finding that starting psychotherapy sessions with Stanley Rosenberg’s Basic Exercise – my client, and me too – greatly facilitates any conversations and/or TAT that follow, not just in efficacy but in the speed of integration. Clients can also easily practice the techniques at home, and start turning their problems around, living a virtuous circle of support and self-support.
Therapy is never a one-size fits all process – much less one-and-done. Human beings are much more complex than that, and that’s a good thing. But instilling a real, felt sense of safety is crucial to our wellbeing and any work we might want to do on our lives. Vagus nerve reset is therefore step one. When we’re open to healing, we can be healed.