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Our nervous system has two main branches: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. The parasympathetic branch is associated with relaxation and calm, while the sympathetic branch triggers the fight or flight response when it perceives a threat or danger.

Chronic stress can disrupt the balance of our nervous system, triggering prolonged fight or flight responses. This can lead to issues like chronic muscle tension, high blood pressure, digestive problems, anxiety, and inflammation.

In this episode, I share my personal experience with an unbalanced nervous system and discuss the vagus nerve, polyvagal theory, and tools and techniques to regulate and calm your nervous system.

Practical tools for nervous system healing include:

  1. Breathwork: Engaging the diaphragm with extended exhales and diaphragmatic breathing signals safety to the brain, particularly through long, slow exhales.
  2. Yoga: Specific poses like surfboard, legs up the wall, supported bridge pose, prone poses, and twists directly target the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and nervous system regulation.
  3. Humming or Chanting: Vibrating the vocal cords through techniques like brahmari or chanting “om” stimulates the vagus nerve, calming the mind and deactivating the fear center of the brain.
  4. Cold Therapy: Applying cold water or ice to areas where the vagus nerve is close to the surface invigorates and calms the nerve. Cold showers or targeted exposure can effectively regulate the nervous system.
  5. Laughter: Contraction of the diaphragm during laughter stimulates the vagus nerve. Laughing or engaging in laughter yoga can release tension and activate the relaxation response.

We also delve into polyvagal theory, which focuses on the two branches of the vagus nerve: the ventral vagal (relaxation response) and the dorsal vagal (shut down and freeze state). The theory highlights the importance of understanding our nervous system’s hierarchy, neuroception, and co-regulation.

Our nervous system is an integral part of our overall well-being. By understanding its functioning and implementing practical techniques for regulation, we can promote physical and mental health, and experience a greater sense of calm and well-being.

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Monica: [00:00:00] Welcome friend. Today’s episode is all about the nervous system, what it is, what it does, and how it influences our physical and mental health. We’ll be talking about the vagus nerve, polyvagal theory, and tools and techniques to regulate and calm your nervous system. But before we get started, let’s take a long, slow exhale together.

Now, the information provided in this podcast is for entertainment purposes only. It’s not medical advice. It’s always best to speak with your doctor or health professional. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a real surge in interest in the nervous system and how it’s the key to healing. And back when I did my psychology degree, there was hardly any mention of the influence our nervous system has on our mental health.

It’s only going through my own health and personal crisis that made me look deeper into how our nervous system [00:02:00] works and how it affects both our physical and mental health. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my thirties when I was at the epitome of physical health. I did yoga every day. I didn’t drink or smoke.

I meditated. I slept eight hours Yet I still got sick, and I firmly believe that stress played a big part in my illness. And the way that our body responds to stress is governed by our nervous system. Our nervous system is like the link between our mind and body. And think of it as electrical signals that run from the brain to the body, sending messages and managing a range of automatic functions.

Our nervous system comprises our brain, as well as the complex network of nerves that run through the entire body. And our nervous system has two main branches, the parasympathetic, which is when we’re relaxed and calm, and the sympathetic, which is the fight or flight response. is constantly scanning our environment, looking for signals of danger or threat.

And this is happening automatically outside of our awareness. A loud noise might startle us, causing our heart to pound. And that’s our nervous system in action. So when our nervous system detects a threat, the sympathetic branch will activate and we’ll go into fight or flight response, which is designed to help us either run for our lives or fight and defend ourselves.

When we’re in fight or flight mode, we get a rush of adrenaline into our bloodstream to energize and mobilize us to deal with the threat. Our heart rate increases, blood flow is diverted to our muscles, our breath becomes short and fast, and our muscles tense up. And when the fight or flight response is activated, the fear center of our brain kicks in.

This is known as the amygdala and our animal instincts take over. Our brainwave frequency increases under this stress, and our thoughts become negative and fear-based.[00:04:00] And this is actually really useful in a near death situation, but it’s not so great when we are dealing with the daily stress of deadlines, bills, and overwhelm.

Normally, when the threat has passed, our nervous system goes back into the parasympathetic state and we calm down. And the parasympathetic state is when we feel relaxed and calm, blood flow returns to our digestive organs, our heart rate and breathing slow down, our logical brain, the prefrontal cortex comes back online, and our thoughts become slower and more neutral, or even positive.

Our bodies are incredibly well designed to handle acute stress, but we can struggle with chronic stress. And chronic or constant stress is when we’re exposed to one stress or crisis after another and we don’t ever get the chance to return back to neutral. Our nervous system stays in the fight or flight response for longer periods of time, exposing us to more stress hormones and leading to chronic muscle tension, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and anxiety.

And the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline also cause inflammation, which can lead to digestive problems like IBS or Crohn’s, reduce our immunity so we catch more colds and take longer to recover from illness. And inflammation is also linked to increased depression and a low mood. So chronic stress affects us both physically and mentally.

Now, if you’ve ever attended our yoga classes, you’ve probably heard about the vagus nerve. It’s spelled V A G U S and it means wandering in Latin. And this is the main nerve involved in the parasympathetic nervous system. It starts at the brainstem and travels through the face, neck, throat, chest, diaphragm, and digestive organs.

And it’s one of the few nerves that sends signals from the body back [00:06:00] to the brain. And this is really important. Most of our nerves are one directional in that they send information from the brain to the body. The vagus nerve has both afferent and efferent fibers, meaning it’s two directional. And 80 percent of the vagus nerve is sending information from the body to the brain.

And because of this, because of these afferent fibers, we can use the vagus nerve to send information to our brain that we’re safe, which will then turn off the sympathetic nervous system. Stimulating or activating the vagus nerve is known to calm our nervous system and bring us back into that calm and relaxed parasympathetic state.

And there’s a number of techniques that I’ll share today that activate the vagus nerve and will help your body and mind to relax. So the first technique is breath work. The vagus nerve passes through the diaphragm, so breathing techniques that engage the diaphragm like extended exhales and diaphragmatic breathing will activate the vagus it only takes minutes for that vagus nerve to be activated and to send that positive signal back to the brain that can relax. And this is why I’m such a big fan of long, slow exhales. We’re basically telling our brain, I’m okay, I’m safe. And I have a whole podcast episode dedicated to breath work, so be sure to check that out if you’re interested in learning more.

The next technique is yoga. And the reason yoga is so calming is because many of the poses will target the vagus nerve. And when we combine yoga poses with breathwork and mindfulness, we hit the vagus nerve trifecta. And some of the best poses for the vagus nerve include poses that release the psoas muscle, because the vagus nerve travels through the psoas muscle.

So poses like surfboard, legs up the wall with our chin tucked in, supported bridge pose with our chin tucked in, and prone poses where we’re lying [00:08:00] on our belly, as well as twists. These poses combined with breath work are especially powerful activators of the vagus nerve. And this is why our yin yoga classes are so popular.

They bring our nervous system into a state of calm, and our clients experience a really deep sense of peace and relaxation in less than an hour. Now, the third technique is humming or chanting. And the vagus nerve runs through our vocal cords. So when we Hum or chant, we create this vibration vocal cords which stimulates the vagus nerve.

I often teach brahmari or humming bee breath in class where we inhale through the nose and on the exhale we make the sound of M. It goes like this, Um. And if you repeat that about 10 times, you’ll get an almost instant calming effect. Chanting om is also really effective. And there’re actually been studies where participants chanted om during a functional MRI scan.

And researchers could see that the limbic system was deactivated, which is a fancy way of saying that it calms our mind. So in this study, the researchers compared chanting OM with just making the sound of a sss while they were getting an MRI. And they found that during OM chanting, the regions of the brain that became deactivated were mainly the amygdala, the anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, insula, and the thalamus.

All of these were the same regions that became deactivated during, vagus nerve stimulation for treatments for epilepsy and depression. And since effective OM chanting is associated with the experience of vibration and the vibration around the ears and the vocal cords, the scientists suggested that this sensation is [00:10:00] transmitted through the, auditory branch of the vagus nerve, whereas saying S didn’t facilitate any activation or deactivation in the brain.

It had no change on the brain whatsoever. Chanting, humming, singing are really great ways to activate the vagus nerve and calm the mind. The fourth, technique to activate the vagus nerve is cold therapy. So you might have seen that ice baths are all the rage and for good reason, but you don’t need to freeze your ass off to get the benefit.

You can just make the last minute or two of your shower cold. And be sure to get the cold water on your face, neck, throat, and chest, as this is where the vagus nerve is closest to the surface. Cold water, or even ice on these parts of the body activates the vagus nerve and can be really invigorating and calming at the same time.

I often have a cold shower when I’m in a bad mood, when I’m feeling stressed or just to get myself out of a funk, but the trick is for it to be cold enough to affect your breath and your heart rate. So that sensation where it’s really cold and it causes you to take a couple of breaths like that, that’s how you know it’s activating the vagus nerve.

The other technique that is also really fun to do is laughter. So when we laugh, we’re contracting our diaphragm, which is basically a forced exhale, and this stimulates the vagus nerve. Now, watching a comedy show or having a good laugh with a friend is great, but laughter yoga is fantastic for calming our nervous system.

And I occasionally run laughter yoga sessions at the studio. They’re so calming and they’re so much fun. And it’s also really great for, social engagement, the activating the ventral vagal part of the nervous system, which I’ll talk about shortly. But laughter truly is the best medicine. So there’s lots of ways to communicate to our brain that we’re safe, [00:12:00] but my favorites are yoga, breath work, and laughter.

Now, safety is a really important concept for the nervous system. And you might say, well, of course I’m safe, but what happens if we’ve experienced trauma or we’ve had times in our life that we felt unsafe? And then in the present day, small triggers like a smell, a sound, or a memory remind us of that past trauma and our nervous system responds as if it’s happening all over again.

So, for example, maybe you were bitten by a dog as a kid and now you get anxious whenever you see a dog. This is our nervous system at play here. But what happens for a lot of people who experience anxiety is that something relatively minor happens in their day to day life. Maybe someone raises their voice to cheer for their football team, but that raised voice reminds you of a past situation where you felt unsafe.

And so our nervous system acts as if that past event is happening again and believes that we’re unsafe. , this is why it’s important to regularly signal to our nervous system that we’re safe, especially when we feel triggered. And when we’re triggered, our nervous system is re experiencing a traumatic event, and we feel as if it’s happening all over again.

When we’re triggered, we have a disproportionate reaction to a present day situation. And people often conflate being offended or upset with being triggered, but they’re very, very different things. Now, there’s a concept in psychology and trauma that’s gaining popularity, and it’s polyvagal theory.

Pioneered by Stephen Porges, it refers to the two branches of the vagus nerve, the ventral vagal, which is the relaxation response and the dorsal vagal, which is when we shut down and freeze. And there’s three important concepts in polyvagal theory, hierarchy, neuroception and co regulation. And I’m going [00:14:00] to explain all of these now.

So in terms of hierarchy, a ladder is a really useful metaphor for understanding polyvagal theory. So, we know that our nervous system is always responding to our environment. So, when it detects a threat, it goes into fight or flight mode. It’s like we take a step up the ladder as our stress arousal increases.

And then if the threat persists or we can’t get away from the danger, our nervous system will take the next step up the ladder and go into freeze or dorsal vagal state. And this is where we numb out, we zone out, we dissociate, we lose sensation in the body, and we become immobilized. Just like animals in the wild will freeze and play dead if they can’t get away from a predator, we freeze when we go beyond our window of tolerance.

And because we can’t escape physically, We escape mentally and dissociate when we’re in a dorsal vagal state. When we’re in this freeze response, there’s less blood and oxygen flowing to the brain, often resulting in dissociation and a decline in cognitive abilities. So here we feel numb, frozen and absent.

And many of us can stay stuck in a freeze state if we’re exposed to chronic stress or if we’ve experienced trauma. We’re feeling numb and dissociated and just going through life on autopilot, but we’re not really there. It’s like the lights are on, but nobody’s home. We shut down and dissociate from life in order to survive.

Now here’s the really important part of this conversation. Come out of the freeze response. We need to go back down the ladder. through the fight or flight response before we return to the grounded and calm ventral vagal state. We can’t skip that step or jump back down to calm. We have to go through the tricky and uncomfortable fight or flight stage and [00:16:00] experience that surge of survival energy.

So in wildlife documentaries, we might see a deer play dead when they’ve been attacked by the lion. And this is a survival strategy to conserve energy and reduce pain. Now, sometimes , the lion will assume that the deer is dead and it might leave it for a moment, and then suddenly the deer springs to life again and escapes.

And after the escape, you’ll often see the deer shaking, twitching, or trembling to release the survival energy in its system and complete the stress cycle. Now when we come out of the freeze response and enter into fight or flight, we have a tremendous amount of survival energy in our system that needs to be discharged in order for us to return back to homeostasis or balance.

The best thing for us is to move that energy through our body, but without understanding that we need to step back down the ladder into fight or flight, we might get a nasty surprise and think that there’s something wrong with us when we suddenly feel that intense rush of survival energy. And I often see this in a yoga class.

People go to yoga because they think it will help them feel better, and it does long term, and they hope that it will cure their anxiety. But the movement and breathwork take them out of the freeze state and they enter into fight or flight. And temporarily, they feel worse. They might feel more anxious, more tense, their heart rate increases, and they can even feel panicky and think that there’s something wrong with them or that yoga’s bad or makes them feel worse.

But what’s actually happening is that the nervous system feels safe enough to come out of freeze and move back down into fight or flight. So for people in freeze, a more flowing style of yoga like vinyasa is better than yin. Somatic movement helps to discharge the fight or flight energy in our body so we can get back into that calm and relaxed state.

Whereas yin yoga, because of its [00:18:00] implicit stillness, can keep people in a dorsal vagal state of shut down as it doesn’t discharge the survival energy in the same way that moving without breath does. So if you’ve ever felt more anxious when you’ve been trying to relax, this might be the reason. Your nervous system changing states.

And this important point is often overlooked when we’re in freeze. There’s a huge amount of energy or electrical charge trapped in our nervous system that wants to come out. And when we come out of freeze, we need to release or discharge that electric energy, that nervous system energy. Otherwise we’ll feel.

A whole lot of tension and distress and my favorite ways of discharging fight or flight energy are shaking, so I’ll just jump up and down and shake my body, stomping my feet or nonlinear movement, which is something that I share with my yoga alchemy clients. It’s a somatic release practice that really helps to heal our nervous system.

Now, the key point to remember is that we need conscious physical movement to exit from the freeze response. And this is where Vinyasa style yoga can really help to discharge that energy and help us to come back down the ladder from fight or flight. So, when we think of polyvagal theory like rungs on a ladder, to come back down to calm, we need to pass through that fight or flight state.

And that might not feel good temporarily. So if we’re in freeze or fight or flight, we need to move. Meditation won’t work in these highly charged states. So often I see people trying to meditate, they’re desperate to feel better, and they usually fail because there’s so much tension and energy in their system that they need to discharge before their mind will settle for meditation.

And when it comes to our nervous system and mental health, it’s really helpful to know which activity is best for which [00:20:00] nervous system state. So if we’re frozen, breath work and activating the vagus nerve to create a sense of safety in our body through vinyasa yoga or somatic movement, And also shaking, stomping, or moving with our breath.

If we’re in fight or flight mode, definitely moving with our breath, shaking, stomping, releasing that build up of nervous system energy. And then once we’re in the ventral vagal state, or we’re feeling more relaxed, then meditation is beautiful and easy. The trick is to use the right tool for the job, and more active styles of yoga are more effective when we’re in a dorsal vagal shutdown.

So that’s hierarchy. The second principle of polyvagal theory is neuroception. And neuroception is Kind of like the unconscious listening that our nervous system engages beneath, our level of awareness. It happens in the background, scanning the environment for cues of safety and danger. And through neuroception, our nervous system is constantly asking the question, Am I safe?

Am I safe? Am I safe? And depending on how our nervous system interprets a signal, determines which pathway comes on line, whether we go dorsal vagal, sympathetic or ventral vagal. And neuroception occurs mostly in the subconscious. But we might consciously notice our heart rate increase. We might notice that uneasy feeling in our stomach, or we might notice that we’re clenching our jaw and we can associate those sensations with feeling safe or unsafe.

And remember that 80 nerve fibers are afferent, meaning they’re sending messages from the body back to the brain and those nerves. fibers are in constant communication with our brain, letting it know if we’re safe or not. Now each one of us has a unique window of tolerance, which is the optimal zone for approaching and dealing with daily [00:22:00] stress.

And chronic stress or childhood trauma can reduce the size of this window. And the more narrow our window of tolerance becomes, the more we struggle to adapt to and recover from stress. And neuroception has a really tight knit relationship with our mental health, especially in how we perceive and react to threats of safety.

And so, when our neuroreceptors are overactive, we might constantly experience threat, worry and fear, which can lead to us feeling stressed and anxious. And there are a number of ways that we can heal our neuroreceptors so that we’re not on high alert. therapy is a great one, working with a great therapist, someone who perhaps incorporates somatic work or uses the body in some way, as trauma is often stored in the body.

Yoga is a fantastic tool for overall calming the nervous system and helping us to really tune into our body and the really subtle sensations and to find those cues of safety in the body. And vagus nerve stimulation, so some of the things I suggested before, uh, belly breathing, Yoga, cold therapy, laughter, all of those things that activate the vagus nerve.

Now, the third principle of polyvagal theory is co regulation and attunement. And connecting with others and feeling safe in social settings is when we’re in the ventral vagal state. So when we were little, we lacked a developed nervous system. So , we learned to co regulate and attune with our caregivers to feel safe.

We took our cues from our caregivers as to whether or not there was a danger or threat in our environment. So in simple terms, co regulation is the process of sending and receiving signals of safety with other people. It’s what happens when two nervous systems connect. We attune to one another subconsciously.[00:24:00]

And one of the best things that we can do for our loved ones who are struggling with stress and anxiety is to offer our calm, loving presence. Rather than trying to fix people, rather than trying to change people, we can just hold space for them and be that calm person so that our nervous systems can attune to one another and we can help them feel safe.

So because our nervous systems are designed to attune to one another. When we surround ourselves with calm people, or put ourselves in a calm environment, we will start to feel calm too. That’s what attunement and co regulation do. And this is what happens in our yoga classes. Our yoga teachers know how to regulate their own nervous system, so they’re able to hold a calm space for everybody.

Now, back in the days when we lived in caves, we really needed the safety of our tribe. Being disconnected from others meant certain death, and our nervous system needs a safe social connections to feel okay. Now, if you don’t have anyone in your life to co regulate with, pets and animals work wonders as well.

Padding and cuddling your fur baby can really help to soothe your nervous system and help you to feel safe. And if you don’t have a pet, you can go to a cat cuddle cafe and just pat a cat for a day. So in polyvagal theory co regulation is seen as Like a biological necessity that’s vital for our mental health in the same way that we need food and water for our physical health.

Now we’ve covered the nervous system, the vagus theory, and I’m a really big fan of understanding the theory and how it applies to us. But there’s a big difference between knowing something and understanding it intellectually, and actually doing it and putting it into practice. And none of this will work if we don’t practice it.

Nervous system work is daily work, to remind ourselves that we’re safe, because it’s only when our [00:26:00] nervous system feels safe that our body and mind can relax. We can eat all the organic veggies, and take the expensive supplements, and drink from our fancy water bottle, and go to the gym. But if we’re not taking care of our nervous system, we’ll remain stuck in survival mode, feeling stressed, tense, and anxious.

And nervous system work isn’t just a tick box activity. It’s learning how to soothe yourself, and slowly and gradually expanding your window of tolerance by finding those safety cues in the body. And while you can heal your nervous system on your own, It’s so much easier with support. And that’s what we do in Yoga Alchemy.

It’s a seven month group coaching program to heal your nervous system so that you can go from merely surviving to actually thriving. And enrollments will open in the next month or two. And if you’re on the wait list, you can save 500 off the program cost. So that’s it for today, my friends. All about the nervous system.

And if you take one thing from this podcast today, is to find a way of sending a message of safety to your brain, to remind yourself that life might not be perfect right now, but I’m okay. I’m safe. And as our brain and body feel safe, as our nervous system feels safe, true healing can begin. So until next time, my friends. [00:28:00]