More of us than not are out of sync with our bodies and emotions—it’s time to unlock the mysteries of the vagus nerve and make nice with your reptilian brain.
I lashed out at him—with snake-bite precision, hitting him right where I knew it hurt. It was horrible to see the impact in his face and body language. What hurtful thing just came out of my mouth!?
I’d been having a lot of difficult emotions surfacing. Stressful times made for a chronic unsafe feeling inside me. Although this bought me some time in moments of panic, it made a living hell for my European husband who never knew when I would lash out at him and strike his heart cold.
Perhaps it was because I’m seriously contemplating having children, and in the face of becoming a mother I was hyper-vigilant about my flaws (and his).
Perhaps I am a dramatic American woman with a lot of Pitta who grew up in a culture heavy with conflict and intensity that reverts to teenaged antics when threatened or stressed (insert Trump Tweet here.)
Either way, my reaction to stress was incongruent with how I want to behave. Incongruent with my radiant, nurturing spirit. The character I became when threatened was not who I wanted to be and letting her run the show was threatening my marriage.
Time to get real. Here were the difficult facts I had to face:
- I lash out blindly like a snake when I feel unsafe.
- I blame my circumstances for how I feet and act.
- I see the unintended effects of this on my loved ones.
- I was not that skilled at getting back to safety inside myself.
- My coping methods for stress were not always healthy.
- I could demolish an entire bag of avocado oil chips to self-soothe.
I know after years of working with clients, these experiences are universal—trauma lives in us all.
I became very tired of letting my past trauma dictate my present and future relationships. Very tired of the old victim narrative, “Well, it’s my trauma, I can’t help it.”
I got desperate, and began an experiment.
For over a year, I have been toning my vagus nerve through various exercises and awarenesses on a daily basis. So far, the results have been incredible. I have been through one of the most difficult transition periods of my life this year, and I have kept myself afloat, listening to nervous system cues and slowly harmonizing with my body.
I believe there’s a better way to live, with a generative relationship to finding safety and resiliency—and therefore less rollercoaster emotions, less fighting, less self-loathing, and more vitality!
I’m going to help you see how you can learn to surf the vagal tone of your body, too. It’s like learning a secret inner language that only you can understand.
This requires a little explanation on my part, and a little understanding on your part. You may already know this stuff, but I love a good humor review. Here we go.
So… You’re totally a reptile. Well, you’re STILL a reptile, I should say.
You have a part of your brain that’s out of your conscious control, lovingly called the “reptilian brain.” It’s in the back by the brain stem, hidden away, like Gollum’s cave. It’s regulated by the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is ‘automatic.’ This means it controls the automatic activities in the body. For instance, we cannot voluntarily increase our heart rate or slow down our digestive tract… or when faced with intense stress, we don’t consciously decide if we’re going to lash out (fight), abandon (flee), or disassociate (freeze).
Science is adopting new theories about this, thanks to pioneers like Stephen Porges, who created the Polyvagal Theory. We’re seeing new ways the vagus nerve can be toned, and therefore the ‘automatic’ responses to stress by the body can become conscious and less-reactive.
For me, this also meant I became more sensitive to how I feel when I say and do things that harm my beloved. It’s a beautiful hell, resensitizing to impact, but it’s allowed me to feel myself more, and makes the snake bite real for me too. Seeing and acknowledging was the first step toward change.
What Dr. Porges started in the early 90s was a revolution in understanding the autonomic nervous system, the reptile brain, and new treatments for trauma.
The Vagus Nerve is often called the “wandering nerve,” as it is the longest nerve in the body and connects to nearly every organ structure, relaying information back to the brain and influencing social behavior.
What excites me about this work, personally, is how it ties into a greater theme in my life right now of slowing down.
When I have that snake in my lap and I’m not aware of it, or I’m all revved up and in a sympathetic nervous system state, lash-outs happen fast. Often I couldn’t even remember what I’d said or done.
I’d already missed the beginning cues from my body, like a closing down sensation in the chest, or heat in the face, sourness in the belly, or tension in my pelvic floor—all signs from the organs relayed through the vagus that I felt unsafe.
When the autonomic nervous system is triggered, it was like *BAM!* Reptile Mode. No use reasoning with me in there. I was completely unreasonable. I had one back-brain priority: survive.
Silly things escalated because I needed safety and security, and I didn’t know how to surf my vagus nerve cues. So how to slow down and self-soothe in a moment like that—to find the parasympathetic—without hurting others?
I’ll get to that, but first, I want to say something about responsibility.
Listen. We all have snakes inside. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Easily said, I know—but the work of self-mastery is, in essence, becoming aware of them and learning to tame them. Luckily, I have a partner who knows how to support me. (Not all of us are so lucky, so in the next article I’ll be sharing ways to empower yourself, how repair with humility and without guilt, and how to ask for help too!) When it comes to this work, though, it’s my mess to clean up—not his. It’s entitlement to believe that he should help soothe me. I have a responsibility to my future children and to my lineage to break this chain.
My goal is to become so good at knowing myself, my triggers, and how I lash out, that I can prevent the harm it causes to the ones I love—or at least repair with maturity and humility when I do.
I am done being caged by my snakes. I am DONE seeing my beloved stung by my lashing out.
I want to let my spirit free, to uplift, and radiate the REAL me more.
So this article is about learning the cues of the vagus, how to slow down your roll when you’re triggered, and how to self-soothe. The next article is going to be about how to harness the vagus to create connection, create empowered asks for help, design better for feeling safe, and how to REPAIR from damage done in the relationship by unskilled, snakesy behavior.
Everyone exhibits nervous system overload differently, and yet, from an Ayurvedic perspective, most of the cues are similar to when Vata is out of balance. These are EARLY cues, because the earlier you can become aware, the easier it is to turn the ship around before harm gets done.
For me, a whacked-out nervous system looks like this:
- Anxiety – think back seat driving.
- Quick Defensiveness – reactivity and quick escalation
- Cold hands and feet
- Trouble sleeping
- Jumpiness, nervousness
- Extra sensitivity to sound and light
- Pelvic tension, diaphragm tension, jaw tension
- Worried thinking – “what did I do wrong?”
- Low libido
- Menstrual cycle irregularity
- Adrenal fatigue – tiredness, hair loss, lack of motivation
- Saying dumb shit – incongruence of inner spirit & outer character
The Vagal Toning Work:
I suggest making a daily practice—even twice daily—out of three or four of these. If you try to do them all, and do them all yesterday, you will burn yourself out. Remember, this is essentially about slowing down. It takes time, it requires discipline and steady resolve.
You are likely pretty whacked out. No offense, but it’s how most of us live these days. So, choose a few things and actually make a schedule in your planner. Here’s the quick list, and I’ll go into detail below about how these activities tone the vagus nerve:
- Dancing – slow, grounded movement
- Singing – your favorite Indigo Girls songs
- Head-Scratching (2 min) – set a timer every hour!
- Cold Showers (30s – 2 min) – perfect after a sauna
- Diaphragm Breathing & Deep Sighing
- Sunlight on your retina in the morning
- Digital Sunset & Sunrise – no devices an hour before bed and upon waking
- Abdominal Massage – slow with oil in clockwise circles
- Pelvic massage – yes, touch your cervix, feel internally
- Abyangha – all over body oil massage
- Swimming with long exhales
Now before you say, “I don’t dance,” stop yourself. I am not a ‘dancer’ either, but I love to move, and I love to express how I’m feeling in my body. I’ve grown to love it, because it is so cathartic. I dance my bejeebers out—you can too.
Don’t get into your head about it. It’s all about the MUSIC.
Sometimes I feel angry and I put on something I can rage to. Sometimes I feel sensual and I put on my sensual jams playlist. The thing is to just move it through, because it WILL move. When you dance, you are with yourself 100%, and this feels safe to your nervous system.
Again, I’m not a singer. Yet, I had dreams of being like Mariah Carey when I was a little girl. I stopped at some point because I got insecure about my ‘bad voice.’
I sing now, not because I think I sound good, but I do it because I feel amazing afterwards. I sing when I’m alone—and as I commit to the practice of it, I happen to notice it starts to sound better.
Singing is amazing for Vagal Tone. Not only do you draw out your exhales—which tells the body that you are safe—but you also stimulate the larynx and face, which are super switches for the vagus.
Seems silly, but scratching your cranium for two minutes helps tone the vagus, and pull you out of a fight/flight response. An excellent way to make friends at parties, vigorously head scratching in the corner when you feel overwhelmed. It’s not lice! I’m just an introvert!
Wim Hoff put the power of cold showers to reset the autonomic nervous system on the map for most of us. It’s a really extreme practice, getting the will up stand or plunge into cold water is HARD! But the benefits are incredible, fast, and deep.
A recent scientific study showed many benefits, including the cold shower as a potential treatment for depression and as an analgesic for chronic pain. The anti-depressive effect of cold showers is attributed to a presence of a high density of cold receptors in the skin, which send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain. Those are some sciency words, I know. Hope they make sense to you.
Diaphragmatic Breath & Sighing
This is essentially breathing into the lower parts of the lungs, slowly, with sighs on exhales to lengthen the breath. This activity and stimulation communicates through the vagus to the brain that there is no danger here, the coast is clear—the brain sometimes needs reminding when we get caught in hyper-vigilant stress loops.
This can be done lying down or seated, however it feels easier for you to access deeper breath. I cue breath into the diaphragm because it’s usually where a cement block of stress accumulates.
Visualize your diaphragm like a big jellyfish. On inhale, it drops low and flattens out as the lungs inflate and take up space in the abdomen. On exhale, it returns to it’s dome shape effortlessly.
Sunlight on Your Retina
Go outside and look directly at the sun. Just kidding.
This is about synching up your circadian rhythm and promoting good restful sleep. When light hits the eye, there is a protein in the retina called melanopsin that uses vitamin A to detect the light and also signal the brain that it’s day time. When it’s night time this signal is switched off.
Studies show that full spectrum sunlight in the morning increases ocular melatonin levels at night. The circadian rhythm and the vagus work together to help the body regulate heart rate as well as respiratory capacity, so I suggest a practice of going outside directly upon waking, before looking at your devices, and waving your arms around in big circles like a monkey (for your neighbor’s entertainment) and taking big breaths of joy to synch up your rhythms.
Same with night time, walking at night in the dark, spooking the raccoons, helps with down-regulating the nervous system.
Digital Sunset & Sunrise
This ties in with the above—don’t become a cyborg—get off your damn phone! I know you want to text your sweetie as you fall asleep, but it’s screwing up your nervous system, your sleep, your heart rate, and your digestion.
It’s all about the rhythms. Although it’s tempting to pick up your phone when you have trouble sleeping, it’s extremely stimulating. That blue light right before bed gives your brain the “morning” cues. You want to down-regulate your vagal tone at night naturally, and up-regulate in the morning naturally.
We are humans of the flesh, part of a planetary oscillation, and we have fallen out of touch with this. This simple practice takes discipline, but it’s worth it.
Turn off All Notifications
Oh my god, the constant distraction and plinging—how can a single train of thought be followed through to completion with all those interruptions?! Talking about overstimulation of the nervous system, this has got to be the #1 culprit.
Just turn them ALL off—even the badges on your phone. You don’t need to know every time you get a Facebook like. Also, switch to Airplane Mode while you sleep.
Ever notice how when you have a bellyache you begin to rub circles on your abdomen without consciously realizing it? There’s an intelligence there. Even if it’s just your own feet for five minutes, self-massage is an incredible tool for self-soothing of the nervous system. I recommend two in particular, for when you’re really struggling:
The Mayans had a protocol called Maya Abdominal Massage, brought to us gringos by Dr. Rosita Arvigo. You don’t necessarily need to know this protocol to tone your vagus (or have any astronomy or math skills!), but I mention it in case you wanted help from me or someone else trained in it.
You want to stimulate the organs with as much pressure that feels comfortable, breathing all the while. If you move in circles, go with the direction of digestion, up right and down left.
It may be tender in there. Go easy at first, and ladies, avoid while menstruating.
This suggestion may shock you, but I want you to consider the AMAZING benefits for sexual, reproductive, and nervous system health of internal pelvic massage for men and women.
I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, and have studied many modalities. It’s my favorite method for getting back into my body when my nerves are screaming *run!*
A few tips: make sure your hands are clean or wear gloves, make sure you have privacy, and that you have plenty of time. This is a pandora’s box friends, so consider getting support and guidance before you dive right in there—my contact info is below!
This is an Ayurvedic treatment of applying warm oil all over your body in smoothing rhythmic fashion. Different oils can be used for different constitutions, and the practice can get heady with protocol when you research it online. Just think , “I love you, I love you, I love you” while you do it.
Love on your body, that’s it.
Notice your freckles, your moles, your scars. Nice long strokes on the long bones and circles around the joints. Start at the feet and don’t forget your head! Great before a shower if you have oily skin, and great after a shower if you tend to be dry skinned. Delish!
An amazing way to move your whole body in a magical liquid called pool water—it’s just like being in the womb! The breathing alone can be incredible toning for the vagus nerve, with those long exhales and with the zen-like movement of joints—it’s nearly the perfect exercise.
So those are a few ideas to get you moving toward a healthy self-soothe practice.
Remember, don’t wait for a crisis. Start today and put some vagal tone in the bank! Prepare for chaos down the road because it’s sure to come. Get creative, but be diligent and dedicated.
Something I learned in permaculture design school: design tight but run loose. Make yourself a morning and evening practice and repeat it for a few weeks. Be a scientist, and stick to it. You will be well on your way to being someone who knows how to surf chaos and find sanctuary inside.
Stay tuned for my next article, how this all applies to relationships, and how to make repair a priority when you accidentally lash out—because make no mistake, those snakes may get quieter with healthy vagal tone, but they are still there. They aren’t the bad guys either—they saved your freaking life at one point, so let’s have some self-respect, and not make enemies of ourselves.
Love ya! Sarah Lou
—Check out Part II of Sarah’s 2-part series here. You won’t regret it!