Vagus Baby!

Aside from reading all of Paulo Cohleo’s books (I find his perspectives and stories to be so heartfelt.)  I do not do much reading these days, nor did I EVER before I had a newborn.  If I’m lucky, I’ll read 1-3 books a year, usually when we vacation in Hawaii. My latest book that I read, although not a Paulo Cohleo story, is called Cured, by Jeffery Rediger MD.  Jeffery Rediger researched why people have remissions from terminal illnesses.  He explains the science behind these miracles, instead of just calling them flukes of nature.  There has to be an explanation, right?  He reveals 4 pillars that played a significant role in helping one heal.  

1 – healing your nutrition; 2 – healing your immunity; 3 – healing your identity; and 4 – healing your stress response.

In todays post I will talk more to the 4th pillar of healing our stress response and how I believe this work to heal how we respond to stress could also significantly help us find and sustain more physical integrity and a sense of well-being within.

Dr Rediger discusses how stress is inevitable as we deal with stress everyday.  It’s how we respond to the stressors in our life that is important.  If we can somehow learn to be more conscious of what we do when we are stressed, maybe we can make little changes to alter our tendencies, and instead, unstick ourselves from our unconscious patterns.    These unconscious patterns, I believe, affect not only our mental and emotional state of well-being, but also our physical body.  I believe our body can suffer and can continue to suffer from the simple memory of “what happened to us” and be in pain until we can change how we respond to our stressors differently.

So how can we change our stress response?

I will start by giving you these 2 following excerpts – 

(pg. 183) Think of how Often you’ve used the phrase gut feeling for a broken heart; you had butterflies in your stomach.  You feel different emotions in different parts of your body for good reason: areas are hot beds for neural receptors. Recent research is showing that we actually have three brains: the head brain, the heart brain and they gut brain and their health and development depend on keeping them in balance and alignment. With the vagus nerve as a connecting cord, emotions flood through our system in the form of neural messages and hormones. Some signals begin in the gut or the heart and flow upstream to the head brain, while others cascade from above. In this way, our thoughts and emotions have both instant and long lasting effects on our biological systems: nervous, endocrine, immune.

(pg. 182) The vagus nerve exits the brain stem at the base of your skull deep in your neck. Press your fingers to the pulse points on your neck and you are close as you can get to your vagus nerve. From that spot under your fingers it shoots down to your heart and beyond, where it regulates heartbeat and dozen of other vital functions. If you have doubts about how deep and rapid the connection is between the mind and the body, the vagus is that literal link between the two – a thick humming power line that runs from your brain to your gut.

This idea that we have 3 brains is fascinating and even more intriguing to me is that they are all connected to our vagus nerve that regulates how we respond to what is happening.  Stress affects me in curious ways, physically I experience many things depending on my current state, but recently more irritation in my neck and right side body(probably due to all the holding and breast feeding I’ve been doing).  I also generally experience a lack of inner flow and circulation.  It is a horrible feeling to feel so stuck inside.  I can feel frozen regardless of how much physical movement I do, foods I eat, etc, etc…So to learn that the vagus nerve controls most of our body functions and our ability to rest/digest and connect to our parasympathetic nervous system was huge insight for me.  How then can I tone my vagus nerve so it’s able to help me relax and help me better respond to simple stressors?  I learned that, toning my vagus nerve to help me relax is relatively simple. However, just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it is easy!!! So I am writing this post, to reflect on what I could do better in my efforts to fine tune the way I respond to stressors in my day to day to create more feelings of ease. 

As I mentioned above, the “gut” is a brain and integrated with both our heart and our mind with our vagus nerve.  This idea made me contemplate the connection between listening to my gut instinct and how that generally has helped me make “better decisions” – of corse when I chose to listen to it!   Studying in France, marrying my husband, Pontus, and switching careers to focus on teaching Pilates and Yoga are 3 decisions I have made that reflect my choice to listen to my GUT.  All those decisions felt really good in my whole body and I cannot always say that has been true for other experiences and decisions. As a human being, I believe we have been more programmed to listen to our mind and heart.  It’s easier to give priority to these 2 brains, especially the mind, as most times this is the logical thing to do!  The whole idea of listening with my gut requires me to trust in myself and in order to trust myself, I need to have at least a general understanding of who I am at my core.

In my youth, (no offense Mom and Dad, I love you and so grateful for you) I often felt as if I had no value.  I didn’t feel like I mattered, as I was not encouraged to have a voice and did not feel listened to.  I was never included in my parents decision process from the schools I went to, to the activities I participated in… I was the child and they were the parent and I did things because “they said so.”  Oh, how I hate that saying!  I believed my role was to be quiet, respectful, grateful, do good in school and do what my parents told me to do, including the Catholic schools I attended.  I should be grateful, no doubt, as I had a lot of opportunities other kids did not. I know my parents were doing the best they knew how, and wanted to give me the best!  However, life is life, and most of us know by now that things are not as always as they seem!  From this memory, I believe it is important to feel like you have a voice in order to feel love and have trust in yourself

If you think about it, “listing to our gut” requires us to trust in ourselves.   Listening more to our inner voice is just a way to be true ourselves and love our actions/decisions.   This love for self and what we do tones our vagus nerve keeping us out of our sympathetic nervous system and therefore, more easily able to deal with STRESS.  Our gut instinct should never be ignored!  It’s definitely an up and down and circular journey for me, but as always, I believe, it’s worth the effort!  For me, listening to my gut brings me back to me!  Knowing this helps me to remind myself (over and over again) to not look past my own inner knowing and self worth.  Maybe you would you would benefit from this reminder about yourself?

Along with the idea of listening to my gut instinct, I feel it’s easier for me to listen well when my gut is physically aligned more with my heart and mind.  Grounding, in general, has always been a challenge for me and something I have been trying to cultivate my whole life.  Since a very young age, I have been told several different times that I lead more with my ‘upper body.’  Growing up playing various sports, my coaches all tried to get me to run with my feet under me instead of behind me.  they would say,  “Brooke, you run with your heart.”  It is true, I did!   My lower body followed and tried to keep up!  I look back now and feel maybe I was just ‘running to please’ without ever stopping to ask if I was pleasing myself in what I was doing?  I wonder if this lack of connection between my physical upper and lower bodies translated to my lack of ability to be able to align my gut with my other 2 brains and therefore my vagus nerve?    Maybe that’s why I love how I feel now after practicing Pilates and Yoga; where these 2 disciplines encourage me to find and connect to a plumb line and work from a place of whole body integrity?   Hmm?

A strong part of me has always believed that you can change your own destiny. Believing my thoughts reflect my current state.  This belief structure works great when things are “good” In my life. The events, stuff, experiences that I believe (especially in the moment) are not “good” I have to wonder… Did I subconsciously ask for this to happen to me, what lesson is the universe trying to teach me now?

Regardless of what your beliefs are it is quite interesting to look at your life from this perspective.  Although, it’s sometimes easier to put the blame on something or someone else for things that happen that are not what you “think you desire” it can be illuminating to play with your own life pieces in an effort to make sense of what makes you YOU! 

I hope you remember to align your gut, heart, and mind, in and out of your workouts, and truly listen to what your GUT is saying.

Here are some other fun excerpt regarding the vagus nerve from Cured

(pg. 184)The vagus nerve is like a muscle the more you use it the stronger it becomes. using the vagus-stimulating it through everything from deep breathing to connecting with a friend or partner is like flexing your biceps as you lift weights, it increases its strength, flexibility, and elasticity. And just like with physical exercise, the more you use it, the better you get at using it, and the more health benefits you reap.

(pg.185)What truly tones your vagus nerve are small moments of connection –  a sort of falling in love, if you will, with the people who surround you on a day-to-day basis, everyone from your husband or wife to children to the barista you’re getting to know that your corner coffee shop.  It could even be a total stranger you meet on the street.

(pg. 189) When the parasympathetic is engaged the vagus activates face-heart connection. At the metaphorical level, it opens your heart to others, and on a literal level, both relaxes and constricts different facial muscles that help you to smile, focus, and express warmth and interest so that you can connect with the people you’re speaking with. When you’re in chronic fighter flight mode, you without even realizing it –  a flatter or forced affect. Fight or flight stiffens your body, inhibits the warmth of your gaze, limits the genuineness of your smile, and overall inhibits your ability to make connections, leading those opportunities for micro moments of love to slip by…..

Therefore a person and fight or flight will have more difficulty, therefore connecting with others, and essentially healing their own selves.

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