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.
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”.
A psychologist probes how altruism, evolution and neurobiology mean that we can succeed by not being cutthroat
Why do people do good things? Is kindness hardwired into the brain, or does this tendency arise via experience? Dacher Keltner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, investigates these questions from multiple angles and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his recent book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (W. W. Norton, 2009), Keltner weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover human emotion’s innate power to connect people with one another, which he argues is the path to living the good life. Here Keltner discusses altruism, neurobiology and the practical applications of his findings with David DiSalvo.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND: What, in a nutshell, does the term “born to be good” mean to you?
DACHER KELTNER: “Born to be good” means that our mammalian and hominid evolution has crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion—feelings such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth. Recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, play, reverence and modesty is built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices.
MIND: One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism is the vagus nerve, as your team at U.C. Berkeley has found. Tell us a bit about this research and its implications.
KELTNER: 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.
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. 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.
MIND: Often when we learn about this type of intriguing academic work being done on emotions, morality and related areas, we are left asking, “Is there anything we can make actual use of here?” As you look down the road, what do you want the impact of your work to be out in the world?
KELTNER: In summarizing the new science of emotion in Born to Be Good, I was struck by how useful it is. Recent research is suggesting that our capacities for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms, and these capacities are found in the emotions I write about.
A new science of happiness is finding that these emotions can be readily cultivated in familiar ways, bringing out the good in others and in oneself. Here are some recent empirical examples:
This kind of science gives me many hopes for the future. At the broadest level, I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life. In more specific terms, I see this new science informing practices in almost every realm of life. Here again are some well-founded examples: Medical doctors are now receiving training in the tools of compassion—empathetic listening, warm touch—that almost certainly improve basic health outcomes. Teachers now regularly teach the tools of empathy and respect. In prisons and juvenile detention centers, meditation is being taught. And executives are learning the wisdom of emotional intelligence—respect, building trust—and that there is more to a company’s thriving than profit or the bottom line.
The vulnerability of our children transformed human relationships, argues Dacher Keltner, and made compassion essential to our survival.
Charles Darwin was the beloved and engaged dad of a really rambunctious group of children. When one of his daughters died at age 10, Darwin started to have these deep insights about the place of suffering and compassion in human experience.
That led him to write, in The Descent of Man, that “sympathy is our strongest instinct, stronger than self-interest,” and he argued that it would spread through natural selection, for “the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
This point was totally forgotten by evolutionary science for quite some time. Well, given all the awful things humans do to each other, how could you make the case that sympathy is our strongest instinct?
The answer lies in the dependence and vulnerability of our children. Little baby chimpanzees eat by themselves; human babies can’t. Baby chimpanzees sit up on their own; you sit up a human baby, and they go, “Watch out, man, my head’s really big!” Boom!
Their heads are so big because their brains are so big. To fit their big heads through the human birth canal—which narrowed as we started to walk upright on the African savanna—our babies were born profoundly premature and dependent upon people to take care of them.
In fact, our babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the face of the Earth. And that simple fact changed everything. It rearranged our social structures, building cooperative networks of caretaking, and it rearranged our nervous systems. We became the super caregiving species, to the point where acts of care improve our physical health and lengthen our lives. We are born to be good to each other.
Are you a vagal superstar?
You can see our natural connectivity and compassionate instincts in how our brains react to pain. Let’s say I pinch or burn your skin—the anterior cingulate region of your brain will light up. But it’s not just your own pain. If you see somebody else suffering, that very same part of the cortex activates. We have the same pain response to other people’s pain as we do to our own experience of pain. We are wired to empathize, if you will.
That’s not the only part of the brain that lights up when we see images of suffering and distress. The amygdala—the brain’s threat detector—activates, which is no surprise since we might worry the suffering will come our way.
But there’s another area that lights up, a very old part of the mammalian nervous system called the periaqueductal gray, way down in the center of the brain. In mammals, this region is associated with nurturing behavior. We don’t just see suffering as a threat. We also instinctively want to alleviate that suffering through nurturance.
We can find another example of how our bodies are wired for compassion in a fascinating part of your autonomic nervous system called the vagus nerve. Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and the vagus nerve starts at the top of the spinal cord and wanders through your body, through muscles in your neck that help you nod your head and orient your gaze toward other people and vocalize. It then drops down and helps coordinate the interaction between your breathing and your heart rate, then goes into the spleen and liver, where it controls a lot of digestive processes. Recent studies suggest the vagus nerve is related to a stronger immune system response and regulates your inflammation response to disease.
This makes the vagus nerve one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down. You see baseball pitchers do this on the mound—they breathe out to calm down, just before they start their windup. The vagus nerve controls that relationship, between the breathing and the calming.
In our lab, we show participants photos of suffering and distress and find that these images activate the vagus nerve. We’ve also found that if somebody tells you about a sad experience—of, say, their grandparent dying—your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an inspiring story, their vagus nerve fires. The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
We also show our undergraduates images intended to inspire pride—like Berkeley’s Sather Gate or the school mascot—and we find that the more pride they feel, the weaker the vagus nerve response. And that really astounds me. This result tells us that when you feel a strong vagus nerve response, you are feeling common humanity with many different groups. When we’re encouraged to feel strong identification with just our own group and not others, the vagus nerve dims.
We’ve also found people who have really strong vagus nerves—“vagal superstars,” as I like to call them. We find that these folks have more positive emotion on a daily basis, stronger relationships with peers, better social support networks. Fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile are the kids who intervene when a kid is being bullied. They’re more likely to cooperate, and will donate recess time to tutor a kid who needs help on homework.
There are a lot of data that suggest we are wired to care, down to the neurochemical level. I’m sure many of you have heard about oxytocin, a neuropeptide that goes up to your brain and is then distributed through your body by your bloodstream. You probably know that breastfeeding mothers release oxytocin and so do men who are engaged in a good long smooch with their sweetheart.
But there are also new studies finding that it may induce altruism. If I give 10 dollars to study participants and squirt some oxytocin up their nose, they will share more of that money with a stranger than they would without the squirt. That’s why oxytocin has been dubbed “the moral molecule” by neuroeconomist Paul Zak.
How contagious is compassion?
And here’s the thing: Research suggests that those strangers who receive money will then be more likely to turn around and make their own gifts. Generosity is contagious. Kindness just spreads like wildfire.
Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have been studying a community in Massachusetts, and they find that among adults, everything is contagious. If your neighbor goes on a diet, you go on a diet. If a person a couple of blocks away start smoking, other people start smoking, and you end up smoking. If you become angry, it spreads to your family and through social networks.
But are negative emotions and behaviors more contagious than the positive and ones, as some think? Research says the answer is no. In fact, positive emotions and prosocial emotions are more contagious than any others. They spread much more rapidly and collectively than the negative.
This might be because giving and sharing feel good. There are studies showing, for example, that if I share resources with you, I get a little activation in the reward circuit in my brain.
What’s more, there’s evidence that these good feelings promote bonding through social networks, even bridging social divisions. My lab has found that if you can get people to feel compassion, they start to feel deeply connected to very different groups. In particular, they feel like they are similar to and share a common humanity with people who are really in need, who are really vulnerable. Cultivating this feeling of compassion makes people more attuned to who is in need and enables more altruistic behavior toward them.
There’s one final, crucial social effect of compassion, and it goes back to Darwin and evolution. To pass your genes to the next generation, you’ve got to have qualities that make you attractive as a partner or, in evolutionary language, as a mate.
Well, researcher David Buss generated a lot of controversy when he surveyed 10,000 people from 37 different countries—heterosexuals at the age of forming romantic partnerships—and asked them: What is most important to you in a mate?
Gender differences generated all the attention around this remarkable study. Women were a bit more interested in men’s financial prospects than men were in women’s, so according to this study, women value resources a little more. And men—primitive apes that they are—were a bit more interested in women’s beauty than women were in men’s looks.
But there was another result that no one talked about, and it was this: Kindness was found to be the most important criterion for a mate, and the single universal requirement across these 37 countries. People are looking for kindness as a mating strategy.
So forget what you’ve been told about compassion—that it’s unnatural, that it’s for suckers. Compassion is essential to our evolutionary history, it defines who we are as a species, and it serves our greatest needs as individuals—to survive, to connect, and to find our mates in life.
Sylvia Klinkenberg, Charlotte N.C.J. van den Bosch, H.J. Marian Majoie, Marlien W. Aalbers, Loes Leenen, Jos Hendriksen, Erwin M.J. Cornips, Kim Rijkers, Johan S.H. Vles, Albert P. Aldenkamp
Received 3 April 2012; received in revised form 8 July 2012; accepted 15 July 2012. published online 08 August 2012.
In addition to effects on seizure frequency in intractable epilepsy, multiple studies report benefits of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) on behavioural outcomes and quality of life. The present study aims to investigate the effects of VNS on cognition, mood in general, depression, epilepsy-related restrictions and psychosocial adjustment in children with intractable epilepsy, as well as the relation between these effects and seizure reduction.
We conducted a randomized, active-controlled, double-blinded, add-on study in 41 children (age 4–18) with medically refractory epilepsy. We performed cognitive and behavioural testing at baseline (12 weeks), at the end of the blinded phase (20 weeks) in children receiving either high-output or low-output (active control) stimulation, and at the end of the open label phase (19 weeks) with all children receiving high-output stimulation. Seizure frequency was recorded using seizure diaries.
VNS did not have a negative effect on cognition nor on psychosocial adjustment. At the end of the follow-up phase we noted an improvement of mood in general and the depression subscale for the entire group, unrelated to a reduction of seizure frequency. At the end of the blinded phase a ≥50% reduction of seizure frequency occurred in 16% of the high-stimulation group and 21% of the low-stimulation group. At the end of the open-label follow-up phase, 26% of the children experienced a seizure frequency reduction of 50% or more (responders).
VNS has additional beneficial effects in children with intractable epilepsy. As opposed to anti-epileptic drugs, there are no negative effects on cognition. Moreover, we observed an improvement of mood in general and depressed feelings in particular, irrespective of a reduction in seizure frequency. These beneficial effects should be taken into account when deciding whether to initiate or continue VNS treatment in these children.
Imagine driving your car using only the gas pedal, never the brake? To slow down, you’d ease up on the gas or tinker with the fuel injection. To improve performance, you’d mix in additives to the fuel. On the occasions you do use the brake, you forget to ease up on the gas, so you are speeding up and trying to slow down at the same time. Sounds crazy-making and completely inefficient, doesn’t it? Over time, we’d run down this car, destroy its machinery.
The sad fact is, that in modern life, we run our bodies much like this car. Our bodies have a hard-wired system for stress and speed, and an equally powerful built-in system for relaxation and quiet. Just like with our car analogy, appropriate use of the right system gets us to our next life destination faster, more efficiently, without burning out our bodies. Using your hard-wired calm system gets you to a state of optimal mental efficiency, gets you into your “zone.” In my new book, A Calm Brain, I explore this system.
To Calm or Not to Calm, That Is the Question…
But many of us have forgotten how to access our calm system in the maddening daily rat race that is urban life. Our daily demands have made us override and forget about our natural relaxation system, so now we reach for the medicine cabinet instead when we want to unwind. How many of us know someone who uses both stimulant and sedative drugs, often on the same day, much like stepping on the gas and brake pedals at the same time? How does this affect our health? Not in a good way, surely. While there clearly is a role for the judicious use of medication, too many of us are using drugs for basic human functions like sleeping and relaxing.
What is your body’s powerful brake pedal, your oft-overlooked and neglected system? An integral component of your braking system is your vagus nerve, a far-flung nerve that reaches nearly all the organs of your body. It slows down your breathing and your heart rate and modulates your voice. It has been called the “great wandering protector” for good reason. Tapping into the vagus helps us achieve both brain and body health, which is the right balance between relaxation and stress.
The Vagus Nerve
But how do we tap into the vagus and increase its activity? Meditation is one way, but some of us don’t have time for meditation, and some of us are just no good at it. Our runaway brains keep us from focusing on just one thing, which is what meditation requires. Working meditation-type principles into our day by uni-tasking is a simple way to tap into the vagus. Uni-tasking is the antithesis of multitasking — our daily effort to pack as much as possible into each sardine-can-minute of our day. Try just taking your dog out for a walk, leaving your cell phone at home. Try just savoring your dinner, without texting or checking your email at the same time. Sleep is another way to tap into the vagus. Touch is another. Give someone a hug or a smile and increase activity in your vagus. Turn off your cell phone for a quick vagal boost!
The neurology of this oft-overlooked nerve is fascinating. I always thought of the vagus as primarily a nerve that carried information from the brain to the body. I have since discovered that 90 percent of the fibers in this nerve do precisely the reverse, ferrying information from the body to the brain. Your vagus nerve is your local in-the-trenches news reporter on the “state of your body,” carrying information instantaneously to your brain, a different circuit entirely from your spinal cord. And accessing and increasing the activity of this nerve is crucial for our health.
Other components of our biological system for calm include our evolutionarily older “core” brain, a key factor in how we feel. This “unconscious” system is far more powerful than our newer, rational brain — our frontal lobes. This is why we sometimes feel inexplicably uneasy in a situation or “instinctively” dislike someone, a “gut” feeling, even if consciously and rationally, there seems to be no reason for the anxiety. In A Calm Brain, I discuss the exquisite biology of these systems and how to harness them for a healthier, drug-free and more productive life.
Breathing is something most of us don’t usually think about. If we’re still alive and breathing, we must be doing it right, right? Wrong.
Let’s start with the disadvantages of rapid, upper chest breathing. Things I see in my physical therapy practice every day. Like neck pain, low back pain, anxiety, poor sleep, cold hands and feet. And headaches. Especially headaches. In all my years of practice, I have never, not once, met someone suffering from headaches who breathed well. (Most of my clients with headaches have a similar story: headaches for years, poor sleep, cold hands and feet, tight neck muscles–all related to upper chest breathing).
Let’s get to the good news…
What are the advantages of breathing well, that is, slow, diaphragmatic breathing? There are SO many advantages that I can’t even begin to list– much less describe– them all here. Let’s start with three important ways breathing well is related to feeling well, as in, less pain.
Diaphragmatic breathing promotes the relaxation response. One of the the ways it does this is by activating the vagus nerve (which lies close to the diaphragm, so when we breathe deeply and the diaphragm moves up and down, the vagus nerve is stimulated). 75% of the parasympathetic (rest and repair) nervous systems’s fibers come from the vagus nerve, so the vagus nerve is a VERY big player in the relaxation response. So much so, that slow, deep breathing is one of the most efficient, non-medication ways we have of going from the state of “fight or flight” (where most of us tend to hang out) to the much more healthy “rest and repair.” When our bodies are in a relaxed state our brains are considerably less likely to perceive input as threatening, and so pain signals are significantly turned down. Research has shown that decreasing anxiety can decrease a pain level of 7/10 to 3/10. Definitely significant.
Diaphragmatic breathing also improves oxygenation. Of course it does. Seems obvious. But did you know that the lower parts of our lungs are about 7 times more productive in oxygen transport than the higher parts? So when we breathe using our diaphragms (and thus the lower lobes), we get much more oxygen to all of our cells, including the cells in our hands and feet (they’re warmer–a nice fringe benefit), and our nerve cells (less pain). And all healthy cells need oxygen. Only pathogens (unhealthy cells) don’t.
Lastly, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates lymphatic drainage. Our lymphatic system has been compared to a sewage system (yuck!). It removes toxins, wastes and abnormal cells. The lymphatic system doesn’t have any pumps, so it relies on muscle contraction and deep breathing to keep it moving. Using our diaphragms to breathe stimulates the cleansing of lymph nodes, increasing lymphatic drainage. This increases the rate of toxin elimination (including the byproducts of inflammation, which cause pain) by as much as 15 times!
How many of us over the years have heard the saying two brains are better than one? Would you be surprised to find out that we do have two brains in our own body? Yes it turns out that the gut does have a mind of it’s own and it is known as the “enteric nervous system”. Just like the brain, which we identify as the mind, there is also a brain in our gut that is located in the tissue lining of our esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. According to, Dr. Michael Gershon, author of The Second Brain, “the connection between the two can be unpleasantly clear.” In fact, we can all relate to this statement “butterflies in the stomach”, before giving a speech, or the first time we kiss someone, anytime we have to make an important decision that involves risk, or the night before a significant examination a bout of diarrhea. This is a direct experience of the action between our two nervous systems.
Many of you may be surprised to hear that there are 100 million neurons in the gut, and that this is greater than what we have in our spinal cord. Furthermore, there are major neurotransmitters like serotonin (95% of serotonin is produced in the gut), as well as, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, and nitric acid. Not to mention the presence of two-dozen small brain proteins, called neuropeptides, as well as major cells of from the immune system. The presence of Enkephalins (a member of the endorphin family) is also found in the gut. Endorphins are small protein molecules that are produced by cells in your body and their goal is to relieve pain with an analgesia type effect. This is experienced by some as the natural high experienced in running or some other form of exercise. It is also one of the sited reasons why soldiers continue to fight in war when they have been injured. Benzodiazepines, an anxiolytic medication (anti-anxiety medication) is also abundantly found in the gut, from the popular psychoactive chemicals known as Valium and Xanax.
The brain and the enteric nervous system (gut) are connected by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the major communication network between the two brains. Messages between the two brains run up and down this network and are supported by other neural networks such as the myenteric plexus and the submucosal plexus, which command and control neurons in the gut.
According to the current research, there is a plethora of evidence that is coming to light regarding the circuitry between the two brains. Scientists, psychologists and nutritionists are beginning to understand why people act and feel the way they do. It has long been known by psychology the connection between fight and flight and that the response is initiated by a fearful situation, which in turn results in the release of stress hormones that prepare the body to flee or fight. If the body prepares to fight like on the battlefield the higher brain communicates to the gut and tells it to shut down. However, fear can also result in the opposite result whereby the vagus nerve turns up the volume of the serotonin circuits in the gut resulting in overstimulation and diarrhea.
Current research is clearly making a connection between the gut and the brain and how digestive imbalance and mental health are highly correlated. Therefore, if we balance the gut, issues like depression, anxiety, and digestive issues, autoimmune illnesses, and arthritis, fatigue, eczema, migraines, and attention deficit disorder come into balance.
There is an old saying, “we are what we eat” and it is never truer than now. It is time to pay attention to what we eat. It is true that some people eat all the right foods but for some reason they cannot digest them or absorb the necessary nutrients. In these cases the result is diarrhea, constipation or irritable bowel syndrome (known as IBS). Below are some of the stats on what the current research is finding with gastrointestinal diseases.
In my practice I focus on an integrative approach between all factors, body (food, supplements, water, breath, rest and sleep), mind (stress management, yoga, meditation and automatic negative thoughts), relationships (important connections with others in our lives), and spirit (our connections to something beyond the physical). The client is asked to keep a thorough food diary (including how they feel after they eat certain foods) and activity log (detailing how much exercise and how they feel after they exercise). All ingested materials are looked at included prescription drugs and supplements. The philosophy I take is that food and exercise are our best medicine and when everything in our lives is balanced we will feel better.
In order to sustain life, the body has two complementary nervous systems: a Sympathetic (arousing) and a Parasympathetic (calming). Both are needed not only for psychological balance, but for survival. Without a Parasympathetic modification, the heart would beat too quickly to sustain life.
Ideally there is a smooth balance between the two, a gentle collaboration. The Sympathetic is dominant in exertion, exercise, athletics, emotional and sexual arousal as well as stressful situations.
The Parasympathetic takes over in relaxation, sleep, meditation, massage, gentle touch, connecting deeply with another person, nurturing – both nurturer and nurtured.
When stress is very great, the Sympathetic system automatically goes to a fight or flight response. This is built in to the system. It can happen in response to external threat or the perception of threat.
Either fighting or fleeing can resolve the stress.
If neither is possible or successful, the sympathetic arousal can get so extreme that it is too much for the body to handle.
At this point, we have a failsafe survival mechanism. The Parasympathetic system spikes. It comes in so strongly that it overwhelms the Sympathic arousal and sends the person into a state of Freeze. This can be full collapse, dissociation, or a more partial freeze such as inability to think clearly or access words or emotions, or move parts of the body.
This can be momentary, short term – such as a possum freezing and becoming reanimated after the predator leaves, or, in humans, continue indefinitely.
Stephen Porges has focused his attention on the Vagus Nerve, one of the largest nerves in the body and a major part of the Parasympathetic system.
The Vagus has two branches: dorsal (back) and ventral (front). The Dorsal Vagus is a large, primitive nerve, which is common to all animals, including fish. I goes down the spine and has a role in controlling our lungs, hearts (moderating heartbeats so they don’t get too rapid) and stomach (where it actually aids digestion).
It is prominent in sleep and relaxation – i.e. when we lie on the beach in the sun. It is very active in the “diving reflex” that allows marine mammals to hold their breaths for long periods of time.
A cultivation of the reflex has allowed humans to set records of over 6 minutes under water.
Normally, the Dorsal Vagus serves a very positive function. It helps the body gently pendulate between arousal and relaxation. However, when the Sympathetic is too aroused, the Dorsal Vagas nerve can shut down the entire system and we go into freeze. This is most common in trauma and shame, which is developmental trauma.
The Ventral or front Vagus Nerve is a much more recent addition. It is common to mammals, who raise live young, not reptiles, birds or fish. It goes directly to the muscles of the face and helps determine expression and is active in social engagement.
When the Ventral Vagal is active we seek and initiate social contact.
Social engagement for mammals is a way of activating the Parasympathetic system. Ventral Vagal social engagement – or attachment behavior – is a way to prevent and come out of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.