What happens in vagus never stays in vagus

In my pretty much relentless pursuit of what will relieve some of the stress and strain of the effects of multiple concussions/TBIs, I’ve been told a lot of things, and I’ve also read a lot of things. I’ve also been routinely “diagnosed” by strangers and friends alike (none of whom have been willing to factor TBI into my equation), as one or more of the following:

  • mildly autistic (Asperger’s syndrome)
  • heavy-duty trauma survivor
  • depressed
  • manic
  • obsessive-compulsive
  • ADD/ADHD
  • “Peter Pan” syndrome (unwilling to grow up)
  • arrested development (unable to grow up)
  • tortured genius
  • artiste
  • etc.

The eagerness of others to diagnose me, sometimes on the spot, is a little irksome, I must say. But now that I’m reading up on the Polyvagal Theory (which explains how the autonomic nervous system is actually comprised of more than one vagus nerve, and is much more varied than many have thought/learned), I’m seeing some common threads between these perceptions.

Stephen Porges, who has been refining the Polyvagal Theory since the mid 1990’s, proposes that there are two distinct branches of the vagus nerve

  • one which is primordial and closely related to how prehistoric tortoises react to threats (e.g. freezing), and
  • one which is more recently evolved, which has the ability to override the sympathetic (fight-flight) response and regulate our internal systems in more subtle and immediate ways

Both of these systems interact with the fight-flight sympathetic nervous system reponse, and when the whole is “out of whack”, you end up with things like neuroses… and/or the inability to control your autonomic nervous system. Porges has proposed that much mental illness can actually be traced back to difficulties with autonomic self-regulation. When you’re unable to get out of perpetual fight-flight mode, and your system is fried from way too much sympathetic stress or way too little “tone”, you can end up with real problems — both in your head and in your life in general.

So, being able to control your inner state is essential to good health — both physical and mental. The beauty of the Polyvagal Theory is that it identifies some core characteristics of issues that are usually considered separate and different from one another, and it provides a way to approach those underlying core issues that is common-sense and also highly practical. What’s more, a lot that you can do to help your vagal tone is actually free and you can do it yourself. Not to say that serious issues can be fixed with a “home remedy” of mindfulness meditation, intentional breathing, and self-talk… but a little of that, done on a regular basis, can go a long way.

At least, that’s how I understand it. And frankly, I have the distinct impression that doing so could dramatically improve the quality of life for a whole lot of folks who suffer with serious self-regulation issues.

And in more ways than one. Because the vagus nerve (the “wanderer” nerve) is the longest nerve in the body, and it reaches into all our viscera — our heart, lungs, digestive system… the whole works. And it both carries information back to the brain and sends information to the organs, so that it’s this constant feedback system that both tells us where we’re at and how we’re doing, and also lets us direct our internal systems, through our thought process, our self-talk, our attitudes, the meanings we ascribe to things, our gut reactions — all of it — in one continuous full circuit.

When the circuit is communicating well and has useful and constructive direction to give to our organs, then we get health. When the circuit is whacked with too much stress and strain, then we get… something else. It’s oversimplified, I know, but the bottom line is, what happens to the vagus happens to our whole body — and it also happens to the rest of the world around us, as it influences how we experience and react to life around us.

Seriously, the vagus is one bad-ass nerve. It’s my favorite nerve, in fact, just after the trigeminal, which is actually interrelated with the vagus.

Anyway, I’m just starting to learn more about this, and I have a long way to go. But it is very interesting, and I intend to learn — and use — more.

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4 thoughts on “What happens in vagus never stays in vagus

  1. The autonomic nervous system is sensitive in so many ways. One good physician once told me “your brain looks good, but it doesn’t function” and he’d rather have a good functioning brain then a good looking brain! That’s one area my body fails in, and is obvious to medical physicians.

    My autonomic instability affects all the vital organs to the degree that heart rate is between 30-50, and of course affects lungs, etc. If you find a way to speed up heart rate and blood pressure without medications let me know. I’m taking medications to do this, but would rather deal on a natural remedy. People don’t understand all the vital organs are controlled in the brain. Thank you for researching this further. I’m looking forward to more tips.

  2. Ah, so now I meet someone with the “bradycardia” I’ve been reading about. That’s pretty wild. For natural remedies, I have heard that cayenne has an invigorating effect on the circulatory system. I used to take cayenne-garlic capsules around flu season to keep my system cleaned out — there may be something there for you as well. It seems to me that if you regulate your ANS with daily breathing — inhalation speeds up the heart and exhalation slows it down, so maybe you could take long slow deep breaths in, and exhale more quickly, and maybe that could help? I’ve heard breath practitioners recommend that. Exercise, too, will raise your blood pressure. I tend to have low BP — 95/56 is not unusual — and I have a bit of a heart murmur, so this stuff is always in the back of my mind. I will indeed be researching this more – I have found some more info on the vagus and the polyvagal theory. It seems particularly useful for folks like us who have a host of issues, not all of which can be easily compartmentalized. Seems to me, an underlying autonomic dysregulation explains a lot.

    More to come…

  3. Can I use my Right-Temporal-lobectomy as an excuse the next time a nice girl wants me to settle down and get married? No, all kidding aside, I had not read anything about this until today and had often wondered, as I park my butt on a barstool in a room full of 24 year old women at 38 years myself what I am doing or why.

  4. Ha! Well, the Right-Temporal-lobectomy might be a great pickup line for a neuroscientist — as for the rest of the population, maybe not so much ;)

    The vagus nerve info really connected a lot of the dots for me – knowing about it really did change my life for the better.

    Hope it does the same for you.

    Happy New Year!

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