You’ve heard the expressions: “He lost his nerve;” “He doesn’t have the stomach for it;” “No guts.” “As it turns out, those expressions are anatomically accurate,” says Dr. Stephen Josephs. “The nerve that you lose when you’re afraid is the vagus nerve, which runs from the belly to the brain. It transmits messages about whether the world is a safe or dangerous place. What we now know about the functioning of this nerve has direct applications making leaders more effective and all of us happier and more courageous.”
Josephs, author of the new book, Dragons at Work, teaches executives how to reliably create states of optimal performance by achieving control of the vagus nerve. When making decisions about resources, leading teams or talking with the board of directors, courage and poise in the face of rapidly changing business environments are essential for a leader.
“Rather than losing your nerve, you can strengthen it. Courage is a skill you can learn and a capacity you can systematically build. The vagus nerve has been linked to everything from digestion issues to stress and depression,” he says. “A benefit of inner body balance includes the projection of true poise; authentic confidence from a leader is what can create a business culture that breeds financial success because employees and clients trust the person in charge to make important decisions from a stable perspective.”
Using specific techniques from martial arts, meditation and other mind-body disciplines, Dr. Josephs guides executives to build resourcefulness and courage as a habitual response to challenge.
He offers tips for business executives to promote a healthy, vagus nerve-friendly environment:
• When angry or afraid, take a high quality breath: People might tell an agitated person to “take a breath,” but it’s the quality of the breath that makes all the difference. For someone who has practiced breathing has wired in an automatic relaxation response, one breath immediately begins to calm them. To practice do this when you’re not under stress: As you inhale, relax your belly and the muscles of your torso, and soften your muscles on the inhale. On the exhale become still. Widen your peripheral vision – take in more of the room, and rest in a more wide open awareness. At this point, your vagus nerve will be sending you messages that the world is a safe place and your ability to respond intelligently will be greatly enhanced.
• Move forward with a relaxed vagus nerve. Now, in a calmer, more resourceful and masterful state, you can apply a saner perspective to a variety of tasks: connect with employees; complete the agenda; let good ideas emerge from employees, with less pressure from management, so they affirm their own competencies. Acknowledge what’s already working well by giving individuals and teams credit. Enjoy your work, knowing that whatever emerges, you can handle it.
• Get over thyself and lighten up: See how much you can accomplish with the least amount of force. And drop self-importance. Remember, unless you’re Donald Trump or Miss Piggy and self-aggrandizement is part of your brand identity, it’s bad for business. It introduces unnecessary noise into the system and distorts communication. Drop self-importance and you’ll hear critical bad news faster, and people will trust that you can handle it.
New research shows meditation boosts your health, happiness, and success!
I started meditating soon after 9/11. I was living in Manhattan, an already chaotic place, at an extremely chaotic time. I realized I had no control over my external environment. But the one place I did have a say over was my mind, through meditation. When I started meditating, I did not realize it would also make me healthier, happier, and more successful. Having witnessed the benefits, I devoted my PhD research at Stanford to studying the impact of meditation. I saw people from diverse backgrounds from college students to combat veterans benefit. In the last 10 years, hundreds of studies have been released. Here are 20 scientifically-validated reasons you might want to get on the bandwagon today:
It Boosts Your HEALTH
Breathing is essential to life. And because it’s automatic, we don’t have to focus on breathing the way we do eating or walking, so we rarely think about it. But maybe we should. Taking in oxygen is fundamental to good health, and for all the time and effort we spend on our diets, it’s interesting that we spend so little on breath.
Though Western philosophy does not devote much mental energy to considering the breath, our friends in the East have a different take. Chinese, Tibetan, and other Eastern traditional healing systems have long recognized the relationship between breath and body. Breathing connects us with our environment. The process of breathing — and especially conscious, meditative breathing — allows us to receive the nourishment of oxygen and experience release from our physical, mental, and emotional burdens.
When we inhale, we take in energy and connect our bodies to the universe. That energy is vital for our well-being. In fact, oxygen energizes our cells. The other side of the process, exhaling, removes carbon dioxide. In other words, breathing maintains balance.
The Value of Deep Breathing
When we are very hungry, we need to eat more. By the same token, when our bodies are deprived of oxygen, we need to breathe deeply. This is most evident after intense exertion, say, a short sprint.
But deep breathing shouldn’t be reserved for exercise alone. When we don’t inhale deeply enough, we decrease the amount of oxygen our breath delivers to our cells, reducing their ability to produce energy. In addition, deeper breathing removes more carbon dioxide, along with other potential toxins. Respiration also balances your body’s pH, reducing the acidity that can impair immunity and other functions.
When incorporated into meditation, deep, conscious breathing reduces inflammation, improves autonomic nervous responses, boosts circulation, and decreases cortisol levels, all of which affect our metabolism of glucose.
Deep breathing helps the heart, too. Reduced blood oxygen forces the heart to pump more; increased oxygen has the opposite effect. In addition, deep breathing reduces oxidative stress, enhances vital energy, and improves cognition.
Over the last century, our breathing volume has decreased. This is partially due to modern work life, which puts us at computers rather than in fields. Physical demands are lower, plus we’re often hunched over, which restricts lung capacity.
Normally, we breathe in about half a liter, or two cups, of air. But our capacity is much larger. On a truly deep inhalation, we can take in about three liters. We have gotten into the habit of taking shallow breaths. How do we break out of it?
The answer is mindfulness. If we are aware of our body, we naturally take deeper breaths. The most obvious choice for enhancing mindfulness is meditation, but other disciplines, such as yoga and tai chi, also rely on harnessing the breath. These practices bolster the immune system on the genetic level; they improve cardiovascular health, grow connections between neurons, and decrease anxiety and depression.
Engaging the diaphragm, the muscle between the chest and the abdomen, is key to deepening the breath. All too often, we breathe with our abdomen. By working to engage our diaphragm, as well, we improve our ability to take in more air. Add to that a slower exhalation. Give the body time to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. Then exhale.
How we bring the air in is also important. Inhaling through the nostrils warms and moisturizes the air and filters out bacteria, viruses, dust, and other foreign objects. The nose pre-processes air for our lungs; breathing through it can reduce allergies and other respiratory ailments.
While Western medicine does not recognize the difference, many ancient systems understand the role each nostril plays and the significance of alternating nostrils during breathing exercises. Different emotional, psychological, and spiritual qualities are associated with each nostril: the left relates to aversion and anger; the right is associated with desire and attachment. By alternating nostrils, we can help restore emotional balance, and research shows that this type of breathing can support relaxation and improve our cardiorespiratory performance.
I think the first step toward developing a sound breathing regimen is to change our attitudes towards the breath. If we think of oxygen as a key nutrient, the way we think of vitamin C or iron, we’ll naturally want to inhale as much as possible. Given the benefits to immunity, cardiovascular health, sugar metabolism, and cellular energy, it just makes sense to breathe deeply. Do it now, and you’ll feel the immediate effects. Just think of the long-term benefits.
Our bodies aren’t shy about telling us that we are stressed out! Muscle tension, backaches, stomach upset, headaches, burnout and other illness states are ways in which the body signals to us the need to relax. Rather than run for that anti-anxiety medication, we can utilize our easiest, natural defense against stress: our breathing. The way we breathe can affect our emotions and mental states as well as determine how we physically respond to stress.
Fight or Flight Response vs. Relaxation Response
The general physiological response to stress is called the stress response or “fight or flight” response. When we experience stress, hormones activated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system flood our bloodstream to signal a state of readiness against potential threats to our well being. While these hormones serve to help us act quickly and with great strength during emergency situations, they exemplify the concept that there can be “too much of a good thing.” Chronic stress results in excess release of stress hormones, which can cause immune-system malfunction, gastrointestinal issues, and blood vessel deterioration, among other health complications. Over time, such symptoms can evolve into degenerative diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
We can help preserve and enhance our health, though, by refusing to fall victim to chronic release of stress hormones, even if we are not able to control when or how stressful situations challenge us. We can learn to effectively manage our physiological reaction to stressors by teaching the body to induce a relaxation response. A relaxation response counteracts the effects of the fight or flight response by helping to boost immune system function, reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, and protect tissues from damage caused by stress-hormones.
Breathing and Relaxation Response
The way we breathe affects our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the branches of which signal automatic physiological reactions in the body, like the fight or flight and relaxation responses. ANS activity is outside of our conscious control. The ANS is responsible for managing our breathing, heart rate, body temperature, digestion, and other basic processes necessary for survival. While the sympathetic branch of the ANS initiates the stress response, the parasympathetic branch induces a relaxation response. Our somatic nervous system, over which we do have conscious control, makes possible the movements of our eyes, limbs, and mouths, for example, as well as how (not whether) we breathe. Thus, we can, through somatic manipulation of our breath, affect which ANS branch remains active, especially during moments of stress.
One of the best means of inducing a relaxation response is through diaphragmatic breathing: inhaling deeply through the chest and virtually into the stomach. Engaging the diaphragm may be the key to inducing a relaxation response through deep breathing because the diaphragm’s close proximity to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve which supplies approximately 75 percent of all parasympathetic fibers to the rest of the body, and may be stimulated through diaphragmatic movement. Conversely, thoracic breathing that is limited to the chest cavity is associated with the sympathetic branch stress response.
Self-Empowerment through Breathing
Situations may catalyze stress for us when we are uncertain about them or unable to control their outcome. We may feel helpless, overwhelmed, fearful, or forced into stifling our true feelings, and may experience additional anxiety over our inability to control the resulting hormonal fight or flight response. The key to stress management is recognition that while we may not be able to control the stressor, we can always control our reaction to it. We have choices: whether to relax through diaphragmatic breathing techniques until we feel ready to make beneficial decisions, or to just react while on sympathetic branch automatic pilot. Even if we don’t find a solution to the stressful situation, choosing to take time out to breathe protects our bodies from detrimental effects of stress.
Upon experiencing fear or anxiety, our diaphragm involuntarily flattens and we breathe in a shallow manner as our body prepares for action. Armed with the knowledge that we can create a counter-response by breathing deeply, we can change any automatic course of action. When a stressor engages us, we can consciously control the speed and fullness with which we inhale, trusting that a relaxation response will happen as long as we keep breathing in this manner and do not lose patience. Recognizing the need to breathe diaphragmatically is half the battle; actually doing it is what empowers and frees us.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Techniques
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie down on your back or sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your back as straight as possible (maybe against a wall) and close your eyes. Place your hands on your abdomen. Slowly inhale, filling your lungs and what seems like your stomach, to the point where your hands rise with the breath. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then slowly exhale completely. Repeat this process for many breaths, savoring the recognition that you are sending life-sustaining oxygen to all the cells of your body.
One of the keys to creating a relaxation response is to “be the breath.” Focusing on the breath helps you be present. When thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, let them go, then refocus the mind on the sound of your breath. Perhaps visualize a relaxing scene or imagine continuous ocean waves slowly rolling into the shoreline. Maybe listening to peaceful music or repeating a mantra in your head that brings you serenity will help you free your mind of distracting thoughts. Your memory is another tool you have to facilitate relaxation. Recalling a time of great happiness can help you replace negative feelings with pleasant ones. Tapping into your particular spiritual belief system at this time might also help you relax; some people find that saying a prayer while breathing deeply can help decrease stress.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Offers Multidimensional Benefits
Bridging the mind and body through deep breathing is a multidimensional experience. Because the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS are regulated by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, rather than neural impulses from the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, these branches are influenced by our emotional responses to environmental stimuli. Neurotransmitters create physiological reactions by relaying information based upon our feelings to various cells within the body. The digestive tract is especially rich with neurotransmitter receptor sites, which may explain “gut feelings.”
Fear, for example, initiates thoracic breathing associated with sympathetic branch activity. When we breathe in a shallow manner, we utilize only half of the alveoli (air filled sacs) in our lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing employs all the alveoli in our lungs while helping the body and mind relax. By repeatedly expanding our lungs to full capacity, we improve our metabolism by increasing oxygen supply to the rest of the body, promoting detoxification in the lungs, and enhancing digestion.
We may also be able to change the emotions which engendered the stress response by releasing their power over us through the breath. Clear thinking and creative decision-making may follow and lead to more positive emotions. The multidimensional effects of deep breathing illustrate the complex connections between the mind and the body and enhance our understanding of stress-related disease prevention and treatment.
When It Comes to Stress, Be Your Breath
The solution to stress lies within us. Nature has given us a defense mechanism with which to combat the physical effects of stress: parasympathetic nervous system activity catalyzed by diaphragmatic breathing. While breathing alone may not resolve the issue stressing us, it can empower us to healthfully adapt on mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual levels.
Consciously breathing is a core element of mind-body philosophies such as yoga,meditation and Tai Chi (diaphragmatic breathing as described in this article most closely resembles meditation). Mind-body disciplines, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, which embrace specific postures and/or fluid movements offer added benefits of improved balance, flexibility and circulation. Regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing through any mind-body technique can help us establish a relaxation routine. When something is routine, we can “just do it” (i.e. let our thoughts go because we don’t need to think so much about what we are doing). A movement–based breathing practice may be the best means of relaxation for more physically active people, and can be a great way for less-active folks to get some exercise.
For some, spirituality may permeate the mind-body breathing practice. The role of spirituality in stress management may relate to how we perceive situations beyond our control. Wayne Dyer, an inspiration guru, lectures and writes that we are eternal spiritual beings who are having temporary human experiences, which seems like another way of saying “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Believing in a higher power (whatever that means to us individually) can relieve us of the perceived burden of always having to handle things on our own.
Learning to cultivate a relaxation response may involve trying various methods until you discover the one that works for you. Finding a technique that you enjoy is the key to making it a lifestyle habit. When you feel the effects of stress… just breathe.
References and Resources:
How often do you have to deal with anxiety in your everyday life?
If you find yourself worrying too much or getting caught into non-stopping irrational thoughts or even feeling nausea, chest pain and heart palpitations then this article is for you.
You are about to learn a simple yet very effective technique to deal with anxiety naturally by stimulating your vagus nerve. This powerful technique can be used to relieve stress and anxiety anywhere and anytime; at home, when commuting and of course at those horrible work meetings.
Did you know that the FDA approved a surgically implanted device that is successfully treating depression by periodically stimulating the vagus nerve?
But hopefully you won’t need surgery. You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation by adopting some simple breathing techniques.
So what is that vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system (the one that calms you down by controlling your relaxation response).
It originates from the brainstem and it is “wandering” all the way down, into the belly, spreading fibers to the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and glands that produce anti-stress enzymes and hormones (like Acetylcholine, Prolactin, Vasopressin, Oxytocin), influencing digestion, metabolism and of course the relaxation response.
Vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection, and it is the cabling behind your heart’s emotions and gut instincts. The key to manage your mind state and your anxiety levels lies on being able to activate the calming nervous pathways of your parasympathetic system.
You cannot control this part of the nervous system on demand, but you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve by:
Strengthening this living nervous system can pay great dividends, and the best tool to achieve that is by training your breath.
Breathe with your diaphragm
Now it’s time to put this concept into practice. The first thing you need to do is breathe using your diaphragm (abdominal breathing). This is the foundation of proper breathing and anxiety relief.
The diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. It is belled shaped and when you inhale it patterns out (or should flatten out), acting as piston and creating vacuum on you thoracic cavity, so your lungs can expand and air gets in.
On the other side it creates pressure, pushing the viscera down and out, expanding your belly. That’s why good breathing practice is described as abdominal breathing or belly breathing.
Breathe with the glottis partially closed
Glottis is at the back of your tongue and it is closed when you are holding your breath. Here we want have it partially closed. It is that feeling you have in your throat while you exhale and make a “Hhhhh” sound in order to clean your glasses, but without actually making the sound.
It also resembles the way you breathe when you are in the verge of sleep and you are about to snore a little bit.
By controlling the glottis you are:
Try it right now
Now it’s time to put all this theory into action by practicing this 7 – 11 diaphragmatic breathing technique.
This is one breath cycle; go for 6 – 12 cycles and observe the results.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The more you practice the more effective this technique will be.
Eventually, when your newly acquired breathing skill is established and abdominal breathing becomes a habit, you’ll find your body constantly operating at a much lower stress level.
You will also notice (or sometimes you will not even notice it) how your breath responses to stressful situations; your body will be conditioned to automatically control your breath and by this, your stress and anxiety.
One of the keys to deal with anxiety is to learn how to stimulate your vagus nerve through proper breathing. The vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection and controls your relaxation response. You can stimulate your vagus nerve by practicing diaphragmatic breathing with the glottis partially closed. Use your dead time to practice this technique consistently, turn it to a habit and you’ll be amazed by the results.
Bill Walker is an article writer and key founder of the AntiAnxietyWaves project. AntiAnxietyWaves offers information, guidance and techniques to deal with anxiety while involved into dead time activities (e.g. commuting time, waiting time etc). Help yourself to deal with anxiety by downloading this (free) pdf guide along with some unique anti-anxiety relaxation recordings at antianxietywaves.com/deal-with-anxiety
Don’t procrastinate with your anxiety, please take action now; if you don’t take even a small step to deal with anxiety today, you probably won’t do it tomorrow.
The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music.
Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.
Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.
Your body’s levels of stress hormones are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) . The ANS has two components that balance each other, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS turns up your nervous system. It helps us handle what we perceive to be emergencies and is in charge of the flight-or-fight response.
The PNS turns down the nervous system and helps us to be calm. It promotes relaxation, rest, sleep, and drowsiness by slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing, constricts the pupils of our eyes, increases the production of saliva in our mouth, and so forth.
The vagus nerve is the nerve that comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxation response. And this nervous system uses the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. If your brain cannot communicate with your diaphragm via the release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve (for example, impaired by botulinum toxin), then you will stop breathing and die.
Acetylcholine is responsible for learning and memory. It is also calming and relaxing, which is used by vagus nerve to send messages of peace and relaxation throughout your body. New research has found that acetylcholine is a major brake on inflammation in the body . In other words, stimulating your vagus nerve sends acetylcholine throughout your body, not only relaxing you but also turning down the fires of inflammation which is related to the negative effects from stress.
Exciting new research has also linked the vagus nerve to improved neurogenesis, increased BDNF output (brain-derived neurotrophic factor is like super fertilizer for your brain cells) and repair of brain tissue, and to actual regeneration throughout the body.
As you get older, your immune system produces more inflammatory molecules, and your nervous system turns on the stress response, promoting system breakdown and aging.
That’s not just talk. It’s backed by scientific studies.
For example, Kevin Tracey, the director of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered how the brain controls the immune system through a direct nerve-based connection.
He describes this as the inflammatory reflex (i). Simply put, it is the way the immune system responds to the mind.
Let me explain.
You immune system is controlled by a nerve call the vagus nerve.
But this isn’t just any nerve.
It is the most important nerve coming from the brain and travels to all the major organs.
And you can activate this nerve — through relaxation, meditation, and other ancient practices, such as the Mayan system of Light Language, combined with Vagus Nerve Activation Techniques given recently by the Group & Steve Rother, the Vagus Nerve can be activated and worked with energetically through geometry, frequency, color, and light.
What’s the benefit of that?
Well, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your immune cells, reduce inflammation, and even prevent disease and aging!
It’s true. By creating positive brain states — as meditation masters have done for centuries — you can switch on the vagus nerve and control inflammation.
You can actually control your gene function by this method. Activate the vagus nerve, and you can switch on the genes that help control inflammation. Inflammation is one of the central factors of disease and aging.
Even more fascinating was the discovery that our bodies can regenerate at any age.
Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)
This is a phenomenal breakthrough.
It means that we have the power to create new cells and renew our own organs and tissues at any age.
And how are these stem cells controlled?
You guessed it: the vagus nerve.
For example, Theise et al.  have found that stems cells are directly connected to the vagus nerve. Activating the vagus nerve can stimulate stem cells to produce new cells and repair and rebuild your own organs.
So relaxation — a state of calm, peace, and stillness – can activate the vagus nerve.
And the vagus nerve, in turn, activates your stem cells to regenerate and renew your tissues and organs.
Scientists have even shown how meditation makes the brain bigger and better.
They’ve mapped out the brain function of “professionalmeditators” by bringing Tibetan lamas trained in concentration and mental control into the laboratory.
The result? They found higher levels of gamma brain waves and thicker brain cortexes (the areas associated with higher brain function) in meditators. (iii)
Relaxation can have other powerful effects on our biology.
In biology, being a complex system that can adapt to its environment and that is resilient and flexible is critical to health.
The same is true for us.
The more complex and resilient we are, the healthier we are.
Take, for example, our heartbeat.
Its complexity is called heart rate variability (HRV) or beat-to-beat variability. The more complex your HRV, the healthier you are. The least complex heart rate is the worst — a flat line.
So what does this have to do with relaxation?
The HRV is also controlled by the vagus nerve.
As you can see, turning on the relaxation response and activating that vagus nerve is critical to health.
Activating the Vagus Nerve Will:
* Reduce inflammation
* Help regenerate your organs and cells by activating stem cells
* Increase your heart rate variability
* Thicken your brain (which normally shrinks with aging).
* Boost immune function
* Modulate your nervous system
* Reduce depression and stress
* Enhance performance
* Improve your quality of life
Not bad for just learning to chill out!
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres, explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our cells, so they die.
Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.
What’s even more remarkable?
In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!
It sounds impossible, but it’s true.
The caregivers who felt the care to be a burden had shorter telomeres, while those who saw their work as an opportunity to be compassionate had no shortening. (iv)
The Dalai Lama said that the seat of compassion is actually biological and — necessary for survival.
Perhaps the development of compassion and wisdom in coping with unfavorable life conditions is the true key to longevity.
It just may be that working to understand our true nature through the cultivation of our minds and hearts with positive practices like meditation or similar techniques is critical to health and longevity.
The ways we can change our bodies through changing our minds is not longer a theory.
There is a new scientific language to understand how the qualities of the mind control the body through effects on the vagus nerve, immune cells, stem cells, telomeres, DNA, and more.
Remember, your body has all the resources and infinitely adaptable systems to self-regulate, repair, regenerate, and thrive.
You simply have to learn how to work with your body, rather than against it. Then you can have a healthy, thriving life – and live out your full lifespan, which can be as high as 120+ years!
But here’s something even cooler – the research that Dacher Ketlner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley is doing shows that stimulating that vagus nerve is not only good for you – it’s good for the planet!
“Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.”
There you go. Do it for love.
Meditation is an ancient art of controlled thought, practiced throughout the world for centuries.
Sometimes in the form of prayer, song or guided imagery, meditation has gained respect as an important medical component in addition to traditional medical procedures. From cancer treatment to addressing PTSD, medical studies reveal that slowing the mind during treatment can and does enhance traditional medicine methodologies.
Simply put, meditation is a form of conscious and focused thinking, often directed with the use of music or spoken word.
Using controlled tests, Western medical doctors have found that the use of focused thought during treatments, “…can help with a host of health problems. Relaxing and quieting your mind by focusing on your breathing can reduce stress – even the stress that comes with arthritic flares,” according to David E. Yocum, MD, director of the Arizona Arthritis Center in Tucson.
Dr. Yocum’s patient studies concluded that those of his patients who set aside time for meditating had more productive responses to daily stressors. In addition, he found that this method proved to lower heart rates, “… better hormonal changes and improved immune function; and that meditation, in combination with traditional medicines, appears to help arthritis patients” adding that, “People who meditate tolerate pain better.”
Studies at the Mayo Clinic using biofeedback have proved that there is a tangible medical benefit for patients. They studied patients who needed to focus on making physical changes to achieve results such as reducing pain.
Stopping short of calling meditation a cure for illness, the Mayo Clinic states, “Meditation can give you a sense of calm, peace and balance that benefits both your emotional wellbeing and your overall health,” adding, “ Meditation can help carry you more calmly through your day and can even improve certain medical conditions.”
They suggest that, through meditation, you can clean your mental slate of the have-tos of everyday life, which promotes emotional wellbeing. As a result you gain perspective and build skills to manage stress by focusing on the present which, in turn, reduces negative emotions. The Mayo Clinic suggests meditation as a complementary tool for traditional medical care.
Relaxation and bodily responses are not the soul benefit of taking time to “smell the roses;” there can be a spiritual function, as well. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Care Clinic of Seattle utilizes the services of reverend Stephen King, PhD, among others, in their chaplaincy services.
Using the findings from Making Health Care Whole, 2010, defined spirituality as, “the aspect of humanity that expresses and seeks meaning and purpose and the way (to feel) connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature and to the significant or sacred.”
One of the positive outcomes from spiritual connectedness is a stronger relationship with God (or the God of your choice), seeking love and care from the same and working with God to seek healing.
In the United States, the practice of meditation grew enormously during the 1960s, perhaps in part because The Beatles studied transcendental meditation in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Something as simple as ten minutes a day in quiet reflection is now an accepted way to begin a workday; some major corporations use meditation in team building. The onset of the technological revolution was part of this road to acceptance and may have found its way into corporate America after word spread that Steve Jobs was practicing meditation on a daily basis.
Some forms of meditation involve deep thought, breathing exercises and chanting. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on the practice in order to see results. Your day maybe filled to overflowing with little time for reflection. However, spending as little as five or 10 minutes sitting quietly, paying attention to your breathing and embracing positive feelings can be a successful tool in your survival box.
Continued research on the benefits of meditation is, “…tipping the balance in favor of implementing these therapies in the medical world to improve the lives of patients, including those who are undergoing cancer treatment. Physicians and academic researchers finally have the science to understand the connection between the brain and the immune system, emotions and disease,” said Dr. Esther Sternberg, a National Institutes of Health senior scientist and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.
The supporting evidence is coming from such places such as the Fred Hutchinson Center, where scientists are studying measurements and testing the value of meditative therapies.
These measurements are an important component, according to Dr. Karen Syrjala, head of Biobehavioral Sciences at the Hutchinson Center. “If we expect that psychological or behavioral strategies will have health outcomes, we must be able to show the pathway or mechanism through which that occurs,” she said.
The team wrote in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience about how they studied 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of everyday anxiety. They said these individuals had no previous meditation experience or anxiety disorders.
The participants took four 20-minute classes to learn a technique known as mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions.
“Although we’ve known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn’t identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals,” said Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief.”
The researchers found that meditation reduced anxiety ratings by as much as 39 percent in the participants.
“This showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety,” Zeidan said.
Fadel and colleagues were also able to reveal that meditation-related anxiety relief is associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which are areas of the brain involved with executive-level function.
“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” Zeidan said. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”
He said the results of this neuroimaging experiment complement that body of knowledge by showing the brain mechanisms associated with meditation-related anxiety relief in healthy people.
Scientists wrote in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in November 2012 about how meditation has lasting emotional benefits. They found that participating in an eight-week meditation training program could have measurable effects on how the brain functions, even when someone is not actively meditating. The team used two forms of meditation training and saw some differences in the response of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain known to be important for emotion.
Have you heard about Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory? The theory, already 20 years old, replaces our old notions of how the sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems (rest and recuperation) help to keep us calm, alert and safe. The area covered by Polyvagal Theory is huge. It impacts the way we understand our nervous system, senses, emotions, social self and behaviors. We see diagnoses like autism, sensory modulation disorder, borderline personality and others, in a new light.
Polyvagal Theory claims that the nervous system employs a hierarchy of strategies to both regulate itself and to keep us safe in the face of danger. In fact, it’s all about staying safe.
Our “highest” level strategy is a mechanism Porges calls social engagement. It is a phenomenal system – connecting the social muscles of the face (eyes, mouth and middle ear) with the heart. You knew that your heart came alive with social interaction, and it’s true! This system is regulated through a myelinated branch of the vagus nerve. In evolutionary terms, this is our most evolved strategy (mammals only) for keeping ourselves safe. We use this all the time to clear up misunderstandings, get help, plead for forgiveness, and so on.
The next mechanism, or strategy, is fight or flight. It’s regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. This system is our fall-back strategy when social engagement isn’t a good fit. (Think of seeing someone sneaking up on you!) Note that freeze is not a part of fight or flight.
Our freeze option is primal and is a remnant of our reptilian past. Freeze is a great strategy for turtles and lizards, but it’s usually a bad idea for humans – think of fainting. Therefore, we typically use it last, when social engagement and fight/flight aren’t going to work for us. But there are good uses for freeze. During severe injury, it shuts us down and turns off our registration of pain. We also make use of it during sex, and it helps women regulate pain and response to pain during labor.
Now these systems appear to work in tandem. The social engagement system puts the brakes on the other (fight, flight, freeze) strategies, thus keeping our heart and body active while we work through a situation. The social engagement system will release the brakes to engage a different response to the environment (i.e. running) if engagement doesn’t help to get us into a safe situation.
What Can Go Wrong
We want our nervous system to operate using the social exchange most of the time. It is our most evolved way of being. It is restful and healthy because it allows our gut and other organs to do their job uninterrupted.
However, some of us are programmed from an early age to work from a fight/flight mode. Think of people who are sensory sensitive and recoil from sound, touch, smell or taste. Think of people with autism (in this case, the face to heart connection is not working). Think of people with borderline personality, depression and perhaps other disorders, too. When we are not able to work from our social engagement strategy, then we revert to a modified fight/flight strategy, which puts us in high alert. If we use too much of the fight/flight or freeze strategies, we may end up with gut issues because the gut comes to a halt and we stop digesting food during fight/flight activation.
The Polyvagal Theory has gained great acceptance over the years as pieces of it are shown to hold under laboratory findings. From a psychological viewpoint, it provides us with a rich understanding of self-regulation in the body. From a sensory processing viewpoint, it informs our understanding of sensory modulation.
If you are unfamiliar with the topic, check out the many articles on Dr.Porges’ website. The most comprehensive article is The Polyvagal Perspective, and it is published here on the NIH Public Access site. It contains the physiological underpinnings of the theory as well as perspectives on development, emotions, trauma and many other topics. There is a short video of it here.
Two researchers looked at a biological marker of the social exchange system, RSA, in typical children and in children with sensory modulation issues. RSA is the measure of high-frequency fluctuation in the heart between heart beats. It is a window into the social exchange system. The researchers found that children with sensory modulation issues have a lower level of RSA than their peers, meaning that these children are better prepared to put the breaks on social strategies and instead use fight-or-flight strategies.
As part of the study, the children were (each in turn) given a sensory challenge. The chairs they were seated on tilted backwards unexpectedly. The level of RSA was monitored in each child throughout the incident. The RSA of typical children dropped quickly and then stayed low for a short time. The children with poor sensory modulation skills had a very brief drop of RSA and a quick rebound to their RSA baseline.
This implies that children with sensory modulation symptoms use different strategies to handle safety-related situations than their peers. At this time, it is harder to draw greater conclusions since we do not have an easy-access window into the fight/flight system or the freeze system. With time, we’ll get a better understanding of this. The article can be found here.
Perhaps the most interesting new work making use of the Polyvagal Theory is the work of A. D. (Bud) Craig. Mapping our emotions, this is what he found. (Read about it here.)
Emotions arise from feelings in our organs and gut. The feelings are sent via the vagus nerve to the Anterior Insular Cortex (AIC) in the brain. (There’s a lot going on in the vagus nerve – think of it as a cable with lots of separate wires.) The AIC captures feelings over time and stores them as snapshots of feelings. This is our working emotional memory. These feelings are massaged and integrated with the social exchange to give us both an emotional response to the world around us as well as a safety-driven strategy.
Think of this: I am relaxing in a lounge chair on the beach. I feel safe. Suddenly, a beach ball hits me. My fight or flight instinct kicks it and the sympathetic nervous system stops everything that’s happening (i.e. digestion) in my organs and gut. The gut passes the feeling of stoppage as “alarm” to the brain. This translates in the brain to fear and my body is set in motion. I quickly turn and see it’s a ball and that a child is nearby and smiling at me. My social engagement strategy puts the breaks on my fight/flight response and also calms my heart. I smile at the child. This sends a sense of relief to my gut and it in turn sends a “warm” feeling to the AIC. My heart is still pounding from the surprise, but my response is guided by compassion.
In the above scenario, we specifically looked at a situation with a challenge to safety. But in fact, we spend much of our time worrying about safety. Unless I am completely safe, listening to quiet music in a locked room, I will most likely have safety challenges to respond to. The challenge may be from the scary book I am reading, or from the sense of anxiety I feel when I drop a spoon on the floor. Almost any activity will involve the combined interaction of the various strategies. The bottom line: we are constantly adjusting ourselves to meet the world. Polyvagal Theory gives us a look at how this works.
This is pretty complex stuff – and the theory is still in flux. It changes with each new study that looks at the implications of Polyvagal Theory on our response to the world. It is going to impact research greatly in the months and years ahead. As I mentioned at the beginning, Polyvagal Theory adds a new dimension to how we see autism, sensory issues and other disorders and will, I think, inform our interventions for those disorders in a big way.