July 28, 2020

Our Vagus Nerve: the Hidden Culprit behind our Triggers & Bad Habits.


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I have spent most of my life with a dysregulated nervous system.

In adulthood, I unconsciously surfed from one toxic relationship to another, constantly seeking what I needed from outside myself. The baseline for my nervous system dysregulation was established during my rebellious teen years and carried with me into my adult years, yet, research from Dr. Valerie Rein shows that nervous system trauma is passed from mother to child.

We seek what is familiar, so I would seek men who would trigger my nervous system, ensuring I was kept in a constant state of dysregulation. I was living blindly and habitually, unconscious of these patterns.

I can best describe the feeling of dysregulation as a constant buzzing feeling within. I was never settled; I was always on guard, ready for the next shoe to drop. This buzzing was the baseline for my nervous system: indecisiveness, forgetfulness, insecurities, lack of appetite, and anxiety were common attributes for me at that time.

My intuition was completely disabled; I was far removed from truly knowing myself and what I wanted.

I lived primarily in survival mode, suffocating myself.

One of the reasons I did not see this happening was because, since the age of 22, I had been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and Transcendental Meditation. I thought that by integrating these practices in my life, I was stable, calm, and okay.

However, because I was unconsciously unaware of the state of my nervous system, I was not able to consciously choose what was best for me.

In doing research for my Elephant article, “Cold Showers Make me a Better Parent,” I searched for a connection between why exposure to consistent cold showers reduced my emotional reactions and rage as a mother.

All my research led me in the direction of the Polyvagal Theory and the vagus nerve—the topic is massive, and can be difficult to comprehend and apply.

I’ve found that Deb Dana, LSCW presented the easiest way to understand the vagus nerve in her book: The PolyVagal Theory in Therapy.

She describes the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system as a ladder with three rungs:

Ventral Vagal (Top of the Ladder)

The top of the ladder is when we feel safe—when we are connecting, social, grounded, in tune with ourselves, and able to hear our intuition.

Sympathetic Nervous System (Middle of the Ladder)

Moving down the ladder is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the in-between state where we find anxiety, worry, an increased heart rate, and our fight or flight mode. This is where our system becomes flooded.

Dorsal Vagal Nerve (Bottom of the Ladder)

At the bottom of the ladder is where we experience complete lack of awareness; where we become immobilized, depressed, and completely disconnected from ourselves and others. This is our reptilian brain.

Deb Dana describes that throughout the day we move up and down the ladder and usually, when something triggers us, we get sent down the ladder. The purpose of understanding the autonomic nervous system is to bring consciousness to your nervous system throughout the day, so you can pull yourself back up the ladder as you are triggered. Consciousness and awareness of my nervous system are what I lacked for most of my early adult life.

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our body and connects all of our organs. Vagal tone is our nervous system’s baseline; our vagal tone is high when we are in the ventral vagal state at the top of the ladder, when we are in our essence, feel grounded in ourselves and our own self-worth, and are resourceful. The higher our vagal tone, the better our nervous system is at addressing trauma and stress.

Specific techniques to keep us at the top of the ladder and move us up the ladder allow us to tone our vagal nerve: cold showers, cold exposure (as popularized by Wim Hof), singing, exercise, laughter, sunshine, being outside, deep belly breathing, and humming, all help to increase the capacity of our nervous system.

Social cues also move our nervous system up and down the ladder. When in conversation, if you receive a smile, welcoming words, or head nodding you feel safe and receive a green light to share and be vulnerable.

If while trying to connect someone signals disconnection with cues such as physically turning away, responding critically and argumentatively, or picking up their cell phone, we receive signals of danger.

Depending on the state of your vagal tone, the signals of danger will be more difficult to detect.  If you have a low vagal tone—as I did—oscillating between the second and third rungs of the autonomic ladder will be hard to decipher. Thus our reactions that are triggered because our nervous system perceives danger do not reflect what is really happening during the trigger.

In the example I used in my article, “Cold Showers Make me a Better Parent”, I describe how my rage takes over when my daughters spill juice on the table. This rage is a sympathetic (second rung) reaction due to me feeling threatened. Somehow juice spilling threatens me, perhaps in a way it symbolizes disrespect, and my fight reaction kicks in.

Oftentimes, our nervous system reactions bring us shame because they happen so quickly and unconsciously. We are left with the aftermath of guilt and remorse for our quick reaction.

Currently, life has presented me with choices enabling me to breathe again, become conscious, and embark on this journey of discovering myself.  Where I once spent my life bouncing between the second and third rungs on the autonomic ladder, I am now fully conscious and have built the confidence and capacity to move myself back up the ladder through implementing techniques such as cold showers, deep breaths with a humming exhale, laughing, and the occasional gargle.

By taking time to relish and be aware when we are at the top of the ladder, we can begin to shift the baseline of our nervous system and tone our vagal nerve.

Being aware of micro-shifts that occur in our nervous system and choosing to react differently shifts us away from habitual behaviors to conscious choices, while creating new patterns—embracing change as it happens on a micro level.


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