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6 June 2013 The Science Behind How Meditation Reduces Anxiety

By  Lee Rannals
June 4, 2013
redOrbit.com

 

Activate your anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which are areas of the brain involved with executive-level function, with meditation.

Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have identified the brain functions involved in how meditation reduces anxiety.

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.

3 June 2013 Polyvagal Theory, Sensory Challenge and Gut Emotions

By Teresa Garland, MOT, OTRL
January 10, 2013
OT and Self Regulation

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.

Sensory Connection

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.

Emotions

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.

References:

  1. Porges, S. W. (2008, February). The Polyvagal Perspective. NIH Public Access, PMC1868418
  2.  Schaaf, R. C., Benevides, T., Blanche, E. I., Brett-Green, B. A., Burke, J. P., Cohn, E.S., Koomar, J., Lane, S. J., Miller, L. J., May-Benson, T.A., Parham, D., Reynolds, S., Schoen, S. A.  Parasympathetic Functions in children with sensory processing disorder. Front Integr Neurosci. 2010; 4: 4. Published online 2010 March 9. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2010.00004
  3.  Craig, A. D. (2009). Emotional moments across time: A possible neural basis for time perception in the anterior insula. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 364,1933-1942.

11 April 2013 Even Brief Meditation Can Improve Student Performance

By Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on April 10, 2013
PsychCentral

Image Credit: Lichtmeister / Shutterstock

College is an invigorating world for most students, a time without parental restraints and a period in life when new experiences occur on a regular basis. But this backdrop can also be a barrier to classroom concentration and attention.

New research, published in the journal Mindfulness, suggests practicing meditation before class can help students focus and lead to better grades.

In the study, George Mason University professor Dr. Robert Youmans and University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg conducted three classroom experiments at a California university to see if meditation might help students focus better and retain information.

Researchers randomly selected students for basic meditation instructions before a lecture and discovered that the students who meditated before the lecture scored better on a subsequent quiz than students who did not meditate.

In one experiment, the meditation even predicted which students passed and which students failed the quiz.

Interestingly, the researchers also showed that the effect of the meditation was stronger in classes where more freshman students were enrolled, showing that meditation might have a bigger effect on freshman students.

“One difficulty for researchers who study meditation is that the supposed benefits of meditation do not always replicate across different studies or populations, and so we have been trying to figure out why.

This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing. Sadly, freshmen classes probably contain more of these types of students than senior courses because student populations who have difficulty self-regulating are also more likely to leave the university,” said Youmans, an assistant professor of psychology.

Youmans believes that self-reflection might therefore have an important place in freshmen seminars or institutions with high attrition rates.

A significant finding from the exercise was a marked improvement in student scores after only six minutes of written meditation exercises — and the researchers believe with more extensive training and coaching that the results could improve.

“Personally, I have found meditation to be helpful for mental clarity, focus and self-discipline,” said Ramsburg, lead author of the study and a practicing Buddhist.

“I think that if mindfulness can improve mental clarity, focus and self-discipline, then it might be useful in a variety of settings and for a variety of goals.”

Youmans also suggests that, in theory, other forms of active self-reflection such as prayer, taking long walks or even just taking the time to mindfully plan out your day in the morning could have some of the same positive effects as meditation.

“Basically, becoming just a little bit more mindful about yourself and your place in the world might have a very important, practical benefit — in this case, doing better in college.”

 

14 March 2013 Éiriú Eolas in Grande Prairie, Canada – Spring 2013

EEbycall

8 March 2013 The Revitalizing Breath

By David Jockers, DC
March 4, 2013
Primal Docs

 

Breathing is the FIRST place not the LAST place one should investigate when any disordered energy presents itself.”
- Sheldon Saul Hendler, MD Ph.D., The Oxygen Breakthrough

Arguably the most important aspect of mental and physical health and well-being is the respiratory process.  This has been known throughout the history of mankind.  Consider that during the course of your life you are “inspired” by ideas, “aspire” toward your goals and dreams, and finally “expire” at the end of your life.  Many of the ancients developed lifestyles and physical exercises such as yoga and qui-gong that are based around the patterns of breathing and respiratory cycles.  So why is breathing so important?

It has been suggested that the average individual can survive:

40 days without food

4 days without water

4 minutes without oxygen

Oxygen and Life Function

It is true that oxygen is absolutely essential for all human function. In fact, the primary homeostatic mechanism in the human body is designed around necessitating appropriate cellular oxygenation.  The respiratory and cardiovascular systems provide and properly distribute oxygen to the cellular mitochondria where it serves as the terminal electron acceptor in the oxidative phosphoralization process and the formation of cellular ATP.  All human performance, energy, and function is based on appropriate tissue oxygenation.

Endurance, the ability to sustain vigorous effort, is substantiated by the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the working muscles (1).  Although many factors have an impact, endurance and human working capacity end when the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems can no longer keep up with the demands for oxygen.  In addition, the structural and functional integrity of brain and viscera are profoundly dependent on regular oxygen supply.  Any disturbance of this supply can be life threatening.

Oxygen and Disease

 The world famous Dr. Arthur Guyton theorized that all chronic pain, suffering and diseases are caused from a lack of oxygen at the cellular level (2).  Lack of cellular oxygen is termed hypoxia.  Hypoxia has been implicated in central nervous system pathology in a number of disorders including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and various other neurodegenerative diseases (3).  Among other diseases, regions of low oxygen tension are commonly found in malignant tumors and are associated with increased frequency of tumor invasion and metastasis (3)

Consider this:  The average human being breaths between 12 – 18 breaths a minute.  That equates to 18,000 to 26,000 breaths every 24 hours.    It has been suggested that at rest we should consume 6 breaths in a minute to supply our needs.  The extra activity involved in our short, shallow breathing habits is robbing us of precious energy, producing toxic waste products and promoting disease in our bodies.

Predicting Death Rates

Dr. Schunemann actually found in a long-term study that lung function predicts mortality rates.  He explains, “The lung is a primary defense organism against environmental toxins. It could be that impaired pulmonary function could lead to decreased tolerance against these toxins. Researchers also have speculated that decreased pulmonary function could underlie an increase in oxidative stress from free radicals, and we know that oxidative stress plays a role in the development of many diseases.(4)”

Dr. Wendell Hendricks, (Two-time Nobel Laureate, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Cancer Research, Hendricks Research Foundation) said the following.  ”Cancer is a condition within the body where the oxidation has become so depleted that the body cells have degenerated beyond physiological control. Similarly, the true cause of allergy is lowered the oxidation process within the body, causing the affected individual to be sensitive to foreign substances entering the body. Only when the oxidation mechanism is restored to its original high state of efficiency can the sensitivity be eliminated.”

Chest vs. Abdominal Breathing

Effective and efficient oxygenation of the cells, tissues, and organs of our body is an absolute energy necessity.  Our respiration cycles are governed by the autonomic nervous system.  When your body is under stress you tend to take short, shallow breaths.  Because these breaths only penetrate into the upper portion of the chest and lungs they are called “chest breaths.”   This reduces your bodies’ ability to effectively oxygenate.  This is appropriate in order to increase respiratory rate when you are under truly stressful situations, like being chased by a lion or sprinting on a track.  However, when it continues for an extended period of time it sets up the pathological processes described earlier.

Several studies have shown that heart disease, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain patients have an intimate relationship with persistent shallow, chest breathing behaviors.   Several researchers have suggested maintenance of posture and breathing habits to be the most important factor in health and energy promotion.

Heart Function

Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is the proper way to respirate.  Taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths is necessary to get the oxygen rich air deep into the base of the lungs where three times as many blood vessels are available for respiratory exchange compared to the upper lung region.  Amazingly, when we are taking deep breaths, our diaphragm which is attached to the heart, is able to pull the heart down and massage it with each breath.  This process optimizes the body’s natural ability to pump fluid and nutrients into the heart vasculature and suck out the wastes.  In the absence of diaphragmatic breathing, the body is unable to adequately deliver nutrients and eliminate wastes from the heart

Dr. Guy Hendricks says “Healthy breathing should be the first thing taught to a heart patient. A Dutch Study conducted by a Dr. Dixhoorn, compared two groups of heart attack patients. The first group was taught simple diaphragmatic breathing, while the second group was given no training in breathing. The breathing group had no further heart attacks, while 7 of the 12 members of the second group had second heart attacks over the next 2 years.”

Chronic Pain and Depression

The diaphragm is also attached to the lumbar spine and produces a natural rhythm of movement that stretches the back and pumps fluid and essential nutrients into the avascular soft tissue structures like the intervertebral disc and ligaments preventing and possibly correcting spinal degeneration and chronic pain syndromes.  The effects continue in that proper diaphragmatic movement pumps cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid around the spinal cord), which results in an increase in brain metabolism and the resulting feelings of physical and mental well-being and enhanced mental alertness.

It is essential to focus on your breathing throughout the day.  Take pauses in your activities to correct your posture and take long, deep breaths from the belly.  The body responds to this stimulus by relaxing, understanding that it is not in a life-threatening situation (obviously if you are breathing long, slow, deep breaths you are not being chased by a lion).  The parasympathetic nervous system is activated, calming stress hormones, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure.  As you consume more oxygen and release metabolic waste products like carbon dioxide you will improve your mood and energy levels.

Steps to Tranform Your Breathing Habits:

  1. Awareness of your breath
  2. Roll your shoulders back and slightly tip your head back
  3. Put your hand about an inch away from your navel.
  4. As you take a deep inhalation, your navel should expand out and hit your hand.
  5. As you exhale your abdomen should sink back in.

*If you notice your chest moving a lot as you breathe – than you guessed it – you’re a chest breather.  The good news is that you can change that today and experience a new life of energy and “inspiration.”

To Optimize Breathing Habits For Life

  1. Continual awareness and practice of correct breathing mechanics.
  2. Chiropractic care and specific posture and neurological rehabilitation exercises
  3. Engage in a regular yoga, pilates, and spinal hygiene exercise program
  4. Engage in a regular aerobic exercise program

I am open to receive with every breath I breathe.”
- Michael Sun

References:

1.  Engel R, Vemulpad S.  The Effect of Combining Manual Therapy with Exercise on the Respiratory Function of Normal Indivuals:  A Randomized Control Trial.  JMPT Sept 2007;30, 7;509-513.

2.  Guyton, Arthur C. The Textbook of Medical Physiology, (5th Edition.) Pennsylvania: WB Saunders Co., 1976

3.  Acker T, Acker H.  Review:  Cellular oxygen sensing need in CNS function: physiological and pathological implications.  The Journal of ExperimentalBiology, 2004; 207;3171-3188

4. Schunemann HJ, Dorn J, Grant BJB, Winkelstein W, Jr., Trevisan M. Pulmonary Function Is a Long-term Predictor of Mortality in the General Population 29-Year Follow-up of the Buffalo Health Study. Chest2000;118(3)656-664.

5.  Bradley.  “Hyperventilation Syndrome.” Celestial Arts (1991).

6.  Hymes and Nuernberger.  Breathing Patterns Found in Heart Attack Patients.  Research Bulletin of the Himalayan International International Institute. 1980 2:2; 10-12.

7.  Nixon P, Human Functions of the Heart.  New York:  John Wiley and Sons, 1987:  37

8.  Luna-Massey P, Peper E.  Clinical Observations on Breath Patterns and Pain Relief in Chronic Pain Patients.  The Association for Applied Psychophsiology and Biofeedback.  1986; 82-84.

9.  Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. Conscious Breathing, Pg. 16.

Author Biography:

Dr. David Jockers owns and operates Exodus Health Center in Kennesaw, GA. He is a Maximized Living doctor. His expertise is in weight loss, customized nutrition & exercise, & structural corrective chiropractic care. For more information go to www.drjockers.com    Dr. Jockers is also available for long distance phone consultations to help you beat disease and reach your health goals.

1 March 2013 Through the nose: The ‘growth of knowledge’ is one breath away

February 28, 2013
By  Earl Horlyk

Corey Schink demonstrates Eiriu Eolas, a meditation program he will teach at Western Iowa Tech Community College as part of the Sioux City school’s lifelong learning program. He is shown Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. Sioux City Journal photo by Tim Hynds

Corey Schink found forgiveness in the form of his late stepfather who appeared to him in a dream.

“My stepdad Jim was a big bear of a man,” the Smithland, Iowa, native recalled. “We got into a fight right before he died.”

Schink carried that guilt for months, along with feelings of aimlessness in life.

One night, his stepfather appeared in a dream, telling Schink that he would be all right and that all was forgiven.

“It was as if a wave of emotions flooded over me,” Schink said. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten to that point without Eiriu Eolas.”

An Irish Gaelic term that means “growth of knowledge,” Eiriu Eolas (pronounced Aye-Roo Oh-lahs) is a breathing and meditation program which combines modern neuroscience with ancient wisdom.

The attributes of Eiriu Eolas is that it detoxifies one mind and body while liberating one’s heart.

Discovering the yoga-influenced meditation on the Internet, Schink credits Eiriu Eolas with turning his life around.

“I wasn’t a very happy person before Eiriu Eolas,” he admitted. “But within six months, I was able to turn my life around.”

Currently, a Briar Cliff University social work major, Schink is also a Eiriu Eolas-certified trainer. He will be teaching the program as part of four-week Western Iowa Tech Community College’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, starting in April.

Explaining Eiriu Eolas, he said it’s a way for a person to relax from the stresses of everyday life while working through past emotional and psychological trauma.

Through a series of progressive breathing exercises, it will eventually allow a person to release repressed emotions and mental blockages while rejuvenating and detoxifying one’s mind and body.

“Eiriu Eolas moves the barriers that stand between you and true peace, happiness,” Schink said. “Ultimately, it help you to achieve a successful, fulfilling life.”

Since learning the meditation, Schink said he’s able to enjoy life to its fullest.

“You know how carefree you felt as a kid?” he asked. “That’s how I feel all the time.”

This is why Schink said he enjoys teaching Eiriu Eolas to newcomers of all ages.

“No matter your age and fitness level, you can benefit from Eiriu Eolas,” he contends. “You’re learning how to breath again, beginning with a technique called pipe breathing before graduating to bioenergetic breathing, which allows a person to dig deep into his emotions.”

Which is important to Schink, since he’s interested in becoming a social worker, counseling at-risk kids.

“Through Eiriu Eolas, I’ve been able to strengthen my inner voice while silencing my inner critic,” he said. “It’s taught me to stay connected with my emotions and liberating me from the burdens that were keeping me down.”

Schink can’t help but smile.

“I am now living the life that I want to live,” he said.

Details

What: Eiriu Eolas: The Growth of Knowledge meditation, taught by certified trainer Corey Schink

When: 6:30 p.m. Apr. 16, 23, 30 and May 7

Where: Room L416, Advance Sciences Building, Western Iowa Tech Community College, Sioux City

Contact: Institute for Lifelong Learning, (712) 274-8733

3 February 2013 The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure: 7 habits that stimulate your vagus nerve and keep you calm, cool, and collected

Christopher Bergland
Psychology Today
Sat, 02 Feb 2013

Early anatomical drawing of the vagus nerve.

When was the last time that you had to perform gracefully in a high-pressure situation? How did you handle it? Did you choke or did you have grace under pressure? Researchers continue to confirm that daily habits of mindset and behavior can create a positive snowball effect through a feedback loop linked to stimulating your vagus nerve. In this entry I will show you 7 habits that will stimulate healthy ‘vagal tone’ and allow you to harness the power of your vagus nerve to help you stay calm, cool, and collected in any storm.

Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing – with a long, slow exhale – is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.

Heart disease is the number one killer in America. One way to improve your heart health is to focus on the vagus-friendy lifestyle habits I explore below. Well conditioned athletes have higher vagal tone because aerobic breathing creates healthy vagal tone, which results in a lower resting heart rate. Healthy cardiac function is directly linked to stimulating the vagus nerve.

In 1921, a German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German: “Vagus Substance”). The “vagus substance” was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter identified by scientists.

Vagusstuff is literally a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales. You can consciously tap the power of your vagus nerve to create inner-calm on demand. This knowledge alone should be enough to reduce the fear-of-fear-itself and give you grace under pressure next time you need it.

What exactly is the vagus nerve?

The word vagus means “wandering” in Latin. The words vagabond, vague, and vagrant come from the same root. The vagus nerve is known as the wandering nerve because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way.

The vagus nerve is constantly sending sensory information about the state of the body’s organs “upstream” to your brain. In fact, 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are dedicated to communicating the state of your viscera up to your brain. When people say “trust your gut” they are in many ways saying, “trust your vagus nerve.” Visceral feelings and gut-instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve.

As with any mind-body feedback loop, messages also travel “downstream” from your conscious mind through the vagus nerve signaling your organs to create an inner-calm so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety or to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight” in dangerous situations.

Your vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two polar opposite systems that create a complementary tug-of-war which allows your body to maintain homeostasis (inner-stability).

The sympathetic nervous system is geared to rev you up like the gas pedal in an automobile – it thrives on adrenaline and cortisol and is part of the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the polar opposite. The vagus nerve is command central for the function of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow you down like the brakes on your car and uses neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to literally lower heart rate, blood pressure, and help your heart and organs slow down.

Unfortunately, the vagus nerve’s reflexive responses can backfire and turn it from comrade into saboteur. Anytime you psyche yourself out before an important event, feel intimidated, or insecure your vagus nerve interprets that you are in real danger which exacerbates these negative responses.

All of the physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach, shakiness – are the result of your vagus nerve disengaging. Luckily, you have the power to harness your vagus nerve and keep it engaged to create grace under pressure. By understanding the incredible power of your vagus nerve you can begin practicing ways to flex it’s inhibitory strength to keep you mellow in times of distress.

7 habits that will stimulate your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure

1. Visualize the Vagus Nerve. Visualizing the vagus nerve as a wellspring of neurobiological ingredients that create mental and physical calmness will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not just the placebo effect in action. Remember, anytime you take a deep breath and exhale you are triggering a biological release of vagusstuff that will lower heart rate and blood pressure.

In addition to visualizing my vagus nerve I literally talk to it in the third person like it is a separate entity. You can try this too the next time you have the butterflies or are shaky before a big presentation or challenge. I will literally say to my vagus nerve things like, “I thought we were in this together. I need you to work with me here. Come on! Don’t let me down.” Somehow this helps take my ego out of the situation, puts me at ease, and makes me feel like I have a loyal comrade on deck. Try this trick the next time you need grace under pressure and see if it works for you.

I include this narrow anatomical drawing to help you visualize what the vagus nerve actually looks like in your body and to illustrate how long it is from top to bottom [see top left].

2. Practice, Practice, Practice. In a Psychology Today blog entry called No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect, I wrote about the power of your cerebellum to store muscle memory and allow you to perform gracefully under pressure. Without extensive practice we are forced to rely too much on the ‘executive function’ of our prefrontal cortex. Anytime you ‘over-think’ your performance you are more likely to choke, fumble and drop the ball. Arthur Ashe called this “paralysis by analysis.” Once the cerebellum is running the show your vagus nerve engages which helps create fluidity in your thoughts and actions.

3. Create Flow by balancing skill and challenge. The key to being in the ‘zone’ or creating a state of ‘flow’ is to find the sweet spot where your skill level perfectly matches the challenge. Get in the habit of continually nudging against your limits. By increasing the challenge gradually you become more skilled and comfortable with more difficult tasks.

Seek challenges that keep you nestled between anxiety and boredom. The key to peak performance is to have a heightened state of arousal but an inner sense of calm reflected in a perfect dynamic tension within the yin-yang of your autonomic nervous system. Although it is tempting to bite-off-more-than you can chew, your vagus nerve can betray you if it feels you’re in uncharted territory. By consistently increasing your skills you will feel at ease as you take on bigger challenges. That said, if you ever do have the opportunity to leap frog to a high-stakes challenge, use other techniques here to harness the vagus nerve and use it as an ally to get you through.

4. Reframe Priorites and Values. I strongly believe that friends, family, good health, and generosity of spirit matter more than any achievements that requires grace under pressure. In 2006, Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford University School of Education, conducted a series of experiments designed to reduce test-taking pressures. In the experiment he asked students to write a paragraph about a topic unrelated to the exam such as: “relationships with friends and family,” “religious values,” “athletic ability,” and “being good at art” before being tested. This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of students.

Before you face any challenge or test that fills you with performance anxiety get in the habit of reframing the importance of the event by putting it in a broader perspective of other things that you’re good at and what matters most to you. Even when the stakes are high, remember that every hurdle is an opportunity to learn. Mastery is a process. Overblown performance anxiety jacks up cortisol and andrenaline levels and makes you less likely to succeed.

5. Use neuroplasticity to re-wire habits of positive thinking. By generating positive emotions and a learned optimism you will ‘fire-and-wire’ together neural networks associated with a mindset that will give you grace under pressure. The vagus nerve picks up on signals coming from the ‘top-down’ and from the ‘bottom-up’ and uses these signals to re-wire your mind through neuroplasticity.

On January 28, 2013 researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland announced that they are hoping to help victims of stroke to overcome physical disabilities by helping their brains to ‘rewire’ themselves using a Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS). Lead researcher Dr Jesse Dawson, a stroke consultant and clinical senior lecturer in medicine, described the vagus nerve by saying, “That nerve is one of the major nerves that goes to the brain. By stimulating the nerves, you can cause upstream changes in the brain without having to go into the brain.”

It is hoped that the device will stimulate release of the brain’s own chemicals and help the brain form new neural connections which might improve participants’ arm mobility. In 2005, the FDA approved the use of VNS for treatment-resistant depression, although it’s use remains controversial… VNS is also used to treat epilepsy and tinnitus.

Dr Dawson added: “Evidence from animal studies suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could cause the release of neurotransmitters which help facilitate neural plasticity and help people re-learn how to use their arms after stroke, particularly if stimulation is paired with specific tasks.” The link between vagus nerve stimulation and neuroplasticity is strong. By focusing on creating healthy vagal tone you can trigger similar neuroplastic changes from the bottom-up. Creating a mindset of grace under pressure can be reinforced through the powerful mind-body connection of the vagus nerve.

6. Seek Daily Physicality. Cardio-respiratory activity, strength training and yoga stimulate vagal tone and harmonize hormones and neurotransmitters linked to grace under pressure. Aerobic activity stimulates healthy vagal tone due to the inherent diaphragmatic breathing of rhythmic cardio-respiratory exercise. Strength training with an emphasis on a robust exhale as you push the weight will stimulate vagal tone.

Yoga increases vagal tone, too. In a 2012 article published in Medical Hypotheses, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), New York Medical College (NYMC), and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (CCPS) presented evidence that yoga may be effective in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease.

The researchers hypothesize that stress causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic under-activity and sympathetic over-activity) as well as under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. According to the researchers, low GABA activity occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic pain. The hypothesis advanced in this paper could explain why vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) works to decrease both seizure frequency and the symptoms of depression.

“Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances,” said Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, who is the study’s lead author. Streeter believes that “This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders.”

6. Anxiety is contagious: Avoid anxious people. As a neurosurgeon, my father needed to have grace under pressure. He understood how delicate the sensors of his own vagus nerve were and would ask anyone in the operating room to leave if he or she was emitting an uptight vibe.

I’ve learned to do the same in life – especially before an important event. Because anxiety is catching, I will remove myself from the vicinity of anyone who is negative, cynical or doubtful of my ability to hit-it-out-of-the-park in a high stakes situation. The vagus nerve picks up on people’s vibe. Of course, none of us like to be around high strung people, but it is particularly important when you need to have grace under pressure.

If you are unable to remove yourself from anxious or nervous people (like in a waiting room for an audition or near the starting line of a race) I recommend using headphones with music that creates an appropriate mood and blocks the ability of others’ anxiety to affect your vagal tone. You can also close your eyes and do mindfulness or meditation maneuvers to distance your vagal nerve from picking up the nervous vibe of people in your vicinity. Obviously, people who emit easy-going, warm, upbeat emotions are much better for your health, longevity, and ability to perform with grace under pressure. Seek these people out!

7. Foster Loving & Kindness. In order to maintain healthy vagal tone it’s important to foster diverse and rewarding social connections. In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Kok of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focused their attention on the vagus nerve.

Their article was titled: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.They discovered that a high vagal tone index was part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health and positive social connections.

Their research results suggests that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward spiral dynamic that scientists are just beginning to understand. Kok states that: “We propose here that people’s ability to translate their own positive emotions into positive social connections with others may hold one of the keys to solving this mystery.”

In the experiment Frederickson and Kok used a Loving-Kindness Meditation technique to help participants become better at self-generating positive emotions. However, they also found that simply reflecting on positive social connections and working to improve them also caused improvements in vagal tone.

Conclusion: The Vagus Nerve and Ferocious Equanimity

Equanimity is a core tenet of many ancient philosophies and religions. Equanimity is defined as “Mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Equanimity has its biological roots in the vagus nerve and is synonymous with grace under pressure.

Equanimity is not synonymous with passivity. As you strive to push yourself ever higher – and take on bigger challenges – do so with what I call “Ferocious Equanimity”. Use your vagus nerve to stay balanced and calm when the stakes are high. As you push against your limits remember that your vagus nerve is always there to keep you imperturbable and steady on the high-wire act of living your life to it’s fullest and maximizing your potential.

Hopefully the advice herein will give you some tools to utilize the incredible power of your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure the next time you need it.

13 December 2012 Meditation helps fight finals stress

By Samantha Sorin
Posted on 06 December 2012
The Signal/College of New Jersey


meditationStressed about finals? Try sitting and meditating. Although this doesn’t sound as appealing as drinking or sitting in front of the television to relax, there are actually many benefits to simply sitting in silence.

An article in Psychiatry Research presented a study that found that people who meditated for a mere 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an important area in the brain for learning and memory. So although you may think you are wasting time by just sitting around and not doing any homework, think again. Meditating actually helps with learning all those pesky flashcards you prepared. Additionally, the findings concluded that there was a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. Not convinced? A control group that did not practice meditation saw no such changes, as seen in MRI brain scans taken before and after the study.

However, this is not the only study to find these changes in the brain. A UCLA study suggests that meditation can actually make your brain stronger. By focusing on your breathing, an emotion or a specific thought, you are training your mind not to wander. You know the saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it?” Staying active in the brain is the same as staying active in the body. By working the brain, you remain healthy and will be able to stay sharper longer, as it helps to prevent white-matter atrophy, which leads to loss of memory and intellectual function.

Finals week leaves you sleep deprived and on the verge of getting sick. Lucky for you, meditation is said to boost the immune system and provide energy, as well as help you sleep a little easier at night. So before you crack open that textbook (which, let’s face it, has been collecting dust since the beginning of the semester when you picked it up from the bookstore), try sitting and concentrating on one thing — be it the sound of your inhales and exhales, a prayer, a thought or your mood at this present moment. To open the mind to the projects, essays and exams that consume finals week, try closing the eyes first.

7 December 2012 Think yourself well

Dec 8th 2012
The Economist
 
 You can. But it helps to think well of yourself in the first place
 
 

The Vagus Nerve

The link between mind and body is terrain into which many medical researchers, fearing ridicule, dare not tread. But perhaps more should do so. For centuries, doctors have recognised the placebo effect, in which the illusion of treatment, such as pills without an active ingredient, produces real medical benefits. More recently, respectable research has demonstrated that those who frequently experience positive emotions live longer and healthier lives. They have fewer heart attacks, for example, and fewer colds too.

Why this happens, though, is only slowly becoming understood. What is needed is an experiment that points out specific and measurable ways in which such emotions alter an individual’s biology. And a study published in Psychological Science, by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does precisely that.

Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok concentrated their attentions on the vagus nerve. This nerve (illustrated right, in an early anatomical drawing) starts in the brain and runs, via numerous branches, to several thoracic and abdominal organs including the heart. Among its jobs is to send signals telling that organ to slow down during moments of calm and safety.

How effectively the vagus nerve is working can be tracked by monitoring someone’s heart rate as he breathes in and out. Healthy vagal function is reflected in a subtle increase in heart rate while breathing in and a subtle decrease while breathing out. The difference yields an index of vagal tone, and the value of this index is known to be connected with health. Low values are, for example, linked to inflammation and heart attacks.

What particularly interested Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok was recent work that showed something else about the vagal-tone index: people with high tone are better than those with low at stopping bad feelings getting overblown. They also show more positive emotions in general. This may provide the missing link between emotional well-being and physical health. In particular, the two researchers found, during a preliminary study they carried out in 2010, that the vagal-tone values of those who experience positive emotions over a period of time go up. This left them wondering whether positive emotions and vagal tone drive one another in a virtuous spiral. They therefore conducted an experiment on 65 of the university’s staff, to try to find out.

They measured all of their volunteers’ vagal tones at the beginning of the experiment and at its conclusion nine weeks later. In between, the volunteers were asked to go each evening to a website especially designed for the purpose, and rate their most powerful emotional experiences that day. Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok asked their volunteers to consider nine positive emotions, such as hope, joy and love, and 11 negative ones, including anger, boredom and disgust. They were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, whether—and how strongly—they had felt each emotion. One point meant “not at all”; five meant “extremely”. In addition, half the participants, chosen at random, were invited to a series of workshops run by a licensed therapist, to learn a meditation technique intended to engender in the meditator a feeling of goodwill towards both himself and others. This group was encouraged to meditate daily, and to report the time they spent doing so.

Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok discovered that vagal tone increased significantly in people who meditated, and hardly at all in those who did not. Among meditators, those who started the experiment with the highest vagal-tone scores reported the biggest increases in positive emotions. Meditators who started with particularly low scores showed virtually no such boost.

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest high vagal tone makes it easier to generate positive emotions and that this, in turn, drives vagal tone still higher. That is both literally and metaphorically a positive feedback loop. Which is good news for the emotionally positive, but bad for the emotionally negative, for it implies that those who most need a psychosomatic boost are incapable of generating one. A further (as yet unpublished) experiment by Dr Kok suggests, however, that the grumpy need not give up all hope. A simpler procedure than meditation, namely reflecting at night on the day’s social connections, did seem to cause some improvement to their vagal tone. This might allow even those with a negative outlook on life to “bootstrap” their way to a mental state from which they could then advance to the more powerful technique of meditation.

Whether, besides improving general health, the mechanism Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok have discovered helps explain the placebo effect remains to be investigated. But it might, because part of that effect seems to be the good feeling engendered by the fact of being treated. More generally, doctors in the ancient world had a saying: “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. This sort of work suggests that though this proverb is true, a better one might be, “a healthy mind for a healthy body”.

12 November 2012 Meditation Affects Blood Flow to the Brain

Michelle Schoffro CookDecember 30, 2010
Care2.com

Exciting new research that will appear in the January edition of the journal, Psychiatry Research, shows that meditation affects the flow of blood to the brain.

Scientists at the Almanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California Los Angeles studied the effects of meditation on the “stress” circuits of the brain.  Ten experienced meditators performed two types of meditation:  a focus-based meditative technique and a breath-based practice.  The meditators’ brains were scanned using MRI technology before starting, during the meditation practices, and following meditation.

Researchers found that four regions of the brain were affected during meditation and there were different patterns of blood flow to the brain between the two types of meditation states; however, both techniques improved blood flow to the brain.  Some of the brain changes continued even after meditation stopped.

While research in this area is still in its infancy, this positive impact of meditation on blood flow to the brain may have applications in brain disorders or stroke.

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