July 25th Blog-Lifes Journey
The Wandering Vagus Nerve
As a yoga, meditation and T’ai Chi student for several decades, I was taught breathing techniques to help remain calm and focused. In keeping my attention on my breath, and shifting the main locus of respiration from the thorax to the abdomen (diaphragmatic breathing), I was also able to stay in the moment for longer periods of time during class and not fall into the trap of obsessing about what I forgot to pick up at the supermarket, worrying about future events or making judgments about other people’s workout attire.
While many of my instructors from these disciplines taught the importance of slow, deep breathing focusing on the inhalation/exhalation ratio during specific movements and asanas (positions), not one of them mentioned that the breathing had everything to do with neurobiology and psychophysiology. That can be translated to mean a relaxation of the nervous system and the way the mind and body interact. This type of breathing acted as a self-induced tranquilizer and kept me from the fight or flight response or getting heart palpitations during a verbal confrontation. Note that under certain conditions, it behooves one to get out of an uncomfortable situation with alacrity, but my general demeanor was to relax and calmly appraise my chances before possibly running for the hills. This pause to consider options in itself was an improvement as far as I was concerned.
These ancient systems of shifting the inhalation-to exhalation ratio of breathing and consciously extending the length of each exhale had profound healing effects. I was to find out upon further research that vagal nerve breathing helped alleviate all types of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease that results in cartilage degradation and bone destruction, tendinitis epilepsy, and even depression and anxiety. Anxiety disorders have become a nationwide epidemic. An article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “Why Are More Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” was particularly troubling as it is a conundrum that hasn’t as yet been solved The article describes that anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common reason college students seek psychological counseling. Perhaps part of the problem for teens as well as adults is uncertainty about the future. This seems a pervasive thought of people of all ages.
Recently, I was examined by my integrative medical physician who saw a great improvement in the range of my blood pressure and resting pulse rate. He didn’t see me dealing with the bears that had invaded my garbage can nor the guy who cut me off on a rainy night which truth to tell made my blood pressure spike. I could not describe these episodes as grace under pressure but to my Doc, I looked like a healthier woman than the previous year and I’ll capitulate to his judgment. I explained that I was practicing a slightly different form of breathing during my classes and feeling a heightened sense of well-being. I was sleeping through the night which thrilled me. I hadn’t lost a pair of glasses or misplaced car keys in many months. I could remember everyone’s name in my condo complex for a change. When I described the pace of my breathing, he smiled and said, “that makes sense. What you’re doing is assisting the vagus nerve to do its job.” Unbeknownst to me, I was doing myself quite a healing service without realizing the profound effects of this type of breathing.
So what is the definition of this wandering nerve?
The Vagus Nerve: “ The longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system and one of the most important nerves in the body. The nerve helps to regulate many critical aspects of human physiology, including the heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion and even speaking.Anatomy of the Vagus Nerve
For this reason, medical science has long sought ways of modulating the function of the vagus nerve. What a boon to self-healing and so easy to use when doing it manually. Although I found that there are two types of vagal nerve stimulation, the one I’ve just described is non-invasive. The other type of stimulation has to be implanted in the body and uses electrical current stimulating devices that have been used successfully in the treatment of epilepsy and depression.
As a round-up, I’d like to review how to harness the power of the nerve for a better quality of life and to improve your “sense of coherence’ and health by using a tool that is at your fingertips. It doesn’t cost anything except your time and a little patience in understanding what this breathing is doing for you.
Laurie Roper, M.S.