Vagus nerve yoga for trauma recovery integrates information from neuroscience, psychology, and the yogic path to illuminate who we are and how we heal from adverse and challenging life events. This post applies Dr. Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory to illuminate the physiological underpinnings of how we, as humans, respond to stressful or traumatic events.
Read on and learn how you can fine-tune your health with yogic breath, movement, and awareness practices which can become building blocks for a life-changing daily practice.
When any system has been out of balance for a long period of time, we can start to feel powerless, helpless, or numb. This is true about the physical body; this is true in more complex systems such as families, work environments, countries, and eco-systems.
It is time that we wake up to our senses.
Initially, a process of awakening can feel terrible. We might want to retreat and shut down again. But wait, this might just be a healing crisis.
A healing crisis is a temporary worsening of symptoms that arises as we go through the healing process. Coming out of numbness, we increase our awareness and awaken ourselves to how much pain is actually there. Stay the course…it is time to heal.
It is your birthright to be loved. You are and always were worthy of care, kindness, generosity, and attention. I invite you to align yourself with this truth. This process involves an intention setting practice—one that invites you to fully love and accept yourself just as you are.
If you have history of trauma, you might find it difficult to access these positive feelings or beliefs about yourself. You may carry faulty beliefs that you are not lovable or that you are unworthy of joy. Or, because of your past, you might have inaccurately concluded that you would never feel like you belong in this world.
One of the ways that you can heal is to take time to create and focus on positive experiences that evoke gratitude, joy, and awe. Each time you notice a good feeling, take time to enhance it a by slowing down, breathing into any positive sensations, and allowing yourself to fully receive the nourishment of the moment.
Ego States, Dissociative Symptoms, and Parts Work Therapies
Do you ever feel as though only some of your emotions or needs are acceptable? Do you push away parts of yourself that you do not want others to see? In truth, all parts of our self are real, important, and necessary. However, it is common to experience conflicts between opposing emotions or needs. For example, you might have a part of you that longs to be close to a loved one while another part feels fearful of intimacy. Sometimes, these competing needs can become polarized within us, leading to anxiety, indecision, procrastination, or self-sabotaging behaviors.
If you have a history of chronic, repeated trauma, you might feel a greater divide between different parts of the self and a greater likelihood of dissociative symptoms. You might feel an unrelenting need to be perfect, be plagued by a harsh inner critic, or exhibit self-aggressive tendencies that lead you to feel at war with yourself. You might also feel as though you are cut off from your feelings or as if you are going through the motions of your life without meaning or a sense of connection. Maybe you alternate between feeling disconnected from your emotions and over identifying with your pain.
And, when we cannot stay present to our emotions, we are much more likely to try to control other people’s behaviors.
Relate? Parts work therapies can help you heal. Let’s take a closer look…
Most of us share a need to be seen and feel understood. We long to belong and to experience ourselves within the context of loving, nurturing relationships. When we have experiences of connection with other people, this helps to build a foundation for a loving and compassionate relationship to ourselves. This in turn can allow us to offer loving care to others. You can think of this exchange as an infinity symbol–a loving exchange of giving and receiving.
However, sometimes we do not receive this care and love in our relationships. Relational trauma impair our trust in others and, like all traumatic events is held in the body and is often maintained as dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the part of your nervous system that manages how you respond to stress. In addition, the ANS also helps you to find healthy relaxation into a felt experience of safety. All of this is directly related to the tone and health of your vagus nerve.
The ability to express empathy and compassion is also related to the health of the autonomic nervous system. You might be someone who struggles with feeling “too much” or you might have difficulty accessing your feelings. At either end of this continuum, working with your vagus nerve can help you to find the sweet spot of connection. One that allows you to compassionately attend to your own pain, and relate to the pain of others (or the world) without becoming overwhelmed. Let’s take a closer look at empathy, compassion, and the vagus nerve.
Empathy is a key element of the work that I do. As a psychotherapist, I am literally trained to not only listen to another but to sense and feel their experience with them. In truth I’ve been this way my whole life—empathy is one of those traits that goes along with being a highly sensitive person.
My sensitivity also defined much of my childhood. You see, when I was growing up I felt everything. If there was an emotion in the room I was sure to pick up on it. Often the emotions would build up in me and then I would start to feel anxious or overwhelmed or sad for “no reason.” It was easier when emotions were named by others. If someone was able to say “I’m sad” or “I’m angry” then I didn’t take it on. But, it was a lot harder with other people’s “unexpressed” or “suppressed” emotions. You know what I mean…when someone has an angry tone of voice and expression on their face but denies it and says, “I’m fine!” This is where things got really confusing!
As a child, empathy was automatic and not something that I had choice about…it was like a faucet left on full stream; I never knew that I could turn it down or off! As a result, there were times when I carried around a whole lot of emotional baggage. This could get pretty heavy. Sometimes I’d have big emotional meltdowns and not know why. Other times I’d get sick because all of these feelings left my body drained.
Developing an understanding of the vagus nerve helped me understand what was happening and how to adjust my empathy faucet…
These are the words feverishly and frantically expressed by countless individuals who have died from Covid-19.
“I Can’t Breathe”
Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain each uttered these words being killed as a result of police brutality. Now, these words are chanted around the world as hundreds of thousands march against systemic racism.
“I Can’t Breathe”
Air quality index spikes to hazardous levels across the West Coast of the United States forcing many to stay inside…it isn’t safe to breathe the air.
“To breathe is to live. Grief is often felt as a heavy weight in the chest. We cannot take for granted the health of our body, our sense of safety in the world, of the cleanliness of our air. These precious gifts are our birthright; yet, they need to be protected. To breathe fully in the midst of intense times is an act of courage.”
In trauma treatment, we are looping our consciousness around places in our psyches and in our bodies that hold unprocessed sensations, emotions, images, and thoughts. Like dusting off old furniture or opening boxes that were pushed into the back of an attic, healing involves going into the recesses of the mind and heart. We bring the light of conscious awareness to our wounds—we attend to the pain so that we can feel integrated and whole.
While it can initially feel frightening to revisit difficult memories, it can also feel empowering to reduce the power they hold over us. Lingering feelings of anxiety, shame, powerlessness, or frozenness need our unconditional acceptance in order to heal. This asks us to suspend any tendency to make ourselves wrong for feeling hurt. Instead, we learn turn towards our pain with love and compassion.
Did you know that activation of the vagus nerve keeps your immune system in check and releases an assortment of hormones and neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and oxytocin. This results in reductions in inflammation, reduced allergies, relief from tension headaches, improvements in memory, and feelings of relaxation (Groves & Brown, 2005).
Traditional vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) treatment, also referred to as neuromodulation, involves surgically implanting a bio-electronic device that provides stimulation for the vagus nerve. However, it is also possible to indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve naturally.
The vagus nerve passes through the belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles. Importantly, 80 percent of vagus nerve fibers are afferent or sensory nerves which means that they communicate messages from your body back up to your central nervous system. That means that when you move and breathe into these areas of the body, you can influence the functioning of your vagus nerve.
Today is Juneteenth, a historical day in the United States which commemorates the day when slavery ended. Unfortunately; however, racism has not. Anti-Black racism in particular, has a centuries-long history of bringing violence and pain to Black communities.
This is an unacceptable reality.
Today, in the United States and worldwide, communities are coming together to challenge this state of affairs. Communities are coming together to eliminate hate, racism and their traumatic effects. Communities are coming together to imagine a new reality that centers marginalized communities, uplifts the validity of lived experience and builds genuine connections based on open communication.
It is time to for all of us to stand up and speak out for equality and justice. It is time for us to listen and offer our presence to hear this pain. It is time for each of us to take personal responsibility for our own participation in racism.
Even if it didn’t begin with me or you, racism is a form of legacy trauma–it gets passed on across generations contributing to our unconscious biases and prejudices. And, now, it is our responsibility to take hold of what has been passed down and create change! It is time to open up to uproot racism and plant compassion.
During and after traumatic events, it is common to experience feelings of confusion, sadness, fear, anxiety, panic, irritability, agitation, anger, and despair. It is also common to experience physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, sweating, shakiness, nausea, or dizziness. These are just signs that our innate stress response has kicked into gear. We might feel an urge to flee or fight. Conversely, we might want to curl up, like a turtle in a protective shell.
While these symptoms can feel unsettling, it is important to recognize that these feelings are expected and they are normal. In fact, they are your body’s natural way of digesting traumatic stress.
However, if you notice that you are having intrusive images, nightmares, or difficulty sleeping, this is a sign that you should seek support with a therapist trained in the treatment of trauma. Otherwise, you might begin to feel stuck. For example, you might not want to go to places, participate in activities, or see people that are associated with your trauma. Overtime, these symptoms can inhibit your ability to live a happy and healthy life.
The Body’s Wisdom in Threatening Situations
As human beings, we are equipped with a physiology that has built-in protective mechanisms to helps us survive threatening situations by mobilizing our defenses or disconnecting us from our pain. When we experience a threat, our sympathetic nervous system helps us to move into self-protection through the release of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine throughout the bloodstream. Just as animals seek to flee or fight a predator; we too, might rely upon these defense mechanisms to survive.