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What Happens In Vagus….

So I was putting together this graphic for my lovely wife, Irene, for her upcoming course and I thought I’d share it with you, and a little bit about why it’s important.

Supra-Diaphragmatic Zone

At first glance you might think…… huh? So let me explain a bit.

This is a picture of all of the organs in the chest and abdomen that are enervated by the Vagus Nerve. “Supra-Diaphragmatic” and “Sub-Diaphragmatic” are science speak for above and below the diaphragm – that band of shiny muscle that lets us breath.

The important thing to really see in this picture is that ALL these organs are run by different branches of the same nerve – it governs digestion, breathing, heart rate, immune functions, etc…. in other words, this picture shows very clearly just how damn important that Vagus is.

Now, here’s the connection to what that means for you, as people who are interested in your health and sense of well-being…

The Vagus nerve also governs something else, and that is the big shut down, or FREEZE response, that happens when our physiology detects that our life is in danger. When that happens the Vagus sends out a message to all those organs it’s connected to, telling everybody to slow down. The heart slows, digestion crawls to a stop, our breathing gets shallow and our whole body enters a low-oxygen state of conservation in which we are numbed out to our own sensations.

This shut down is very often part of what happens when we live as survivors of trauma, or chronic stress. As an infant, this shut down response can happen very easily. Simply leave a baby to “cry itself to sleep” (which is a ridiculous phrase as it implies some sort of self-soothing which a baby is physiologically unable to do – they’re just not wired for it yet) what actually happens is that baby’s sympathetic nervous system revs and revs – the crying, progressing to shrieking, etc… until the body literally feels that it will die and so it shuts down and the baby essentially passes out.

I give this example to point out how very common it is for a person to be walking around with some level of this unresolved freeze response sitting in their system. It can happen from an injury in front of peers, where you hold it all in and “play it cool”, when actually you are simply numbing out and disassociating. There are countless ways in our society that a person may pass through overwhelming experiences that will trigger this shut-down response.

Here’s the real kicker – this survival response is meant to be time-limited. Animals come out of it naturally, often accompanied by shaking and twitching all over, discharging the fight or flight energy that built up before the freeze took over.

Us humans though, with our big smart neo-cortexes, we have the power to actually suppress this natural process of thawing and we are usually encouraged to do so from a very young age.

“Don’t cry”, “Be a big girl”, etc… is enough to train a young nervous system to repress the natural flow, and if that kid was a baby that was left to cry itself to sleep, this pattern will already be ingrained as a response to anything overwhelming.

Then, very easily, everything becomes overwhelming as that kid’s nervous system gets more and more blocked up and disorganized. Welcome to your lifetime struggle with anxiety and depression, kid!

Here is the real point though… it doesn’t have to be a lifetime struggle.

Thanks to innovators like Peter Levine, Stephen Porges, Pat Ogden, Bessel Van De Kolk and many more who have developed and advanced psychobiological approaches to trauma therapy, we can now help people re-regulate their bruised and battered nervous systems and psyches.

I know, cause I was one of those kids and now I help others do just this!

Remember…. what happens in Vagus, stays in Vagus….. unless you help it get out!

The Coffee Parable

de4a8eeea6fe449888b371eafe8272d4I recently had a big AHA! moment.

I know this sounds silly, but it came when I realized, “you know what? life is just to damn precious to waste time drinking coffee that I don’t really like.”

Silly, I know. But it really did hit me all of a sudden that this “preference” I had, up ’til then, held for french roast coffee (the darkest roast available), was not really my preference at all.

You see, I had been flirting for a while with drinking medium roast coffee and all of a sudden it just hit me like, “BAM! I like this better!” Moreover, I realized that I had been subconsciously detesting the taste of french roast for a while, but had been in denial of this because I had for so many years just accepted that “I like dark roast”.

But when the momentum of my growing appreciation for something fruitier, subtler, with warmer notes and less acidity became unstoppable, culminating in that lightning bolt from the sky that declared forever more that, “I AM NOW A MEDIUM ROAST DRINKER”, well, when that happened it also hit me that my supposed preference for bitter, burnt tasting coffee came from my folks.

In my house growing up it always french roast. Always.

I had developed my preference simply because that’s what was around.

This is a great parable for relationships in general I think.

When we grow up in a abusive home, like I did, we cultivate and embed neural pathways and nervous system management strategies that help us navigate the stress of our experience. Then we subconsciously just accept that, “this is the way it is”.

The understandings of the detrimental effects of childhood trauma on the nervous system and brain, and in health and well-being as an adult, have only recently been understood. Google the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study for the science.

The point is that we all form conscious and subconscious preferences for certain experiences and behaviors that support the particular physiology we have developed and, in the case of traumatized individuals, those preferences are often for things that don’t actually serve us that well, in terms of our wholeness and health.

When we start to heal, we may find that our preferences for certain types of food, entertainment, environments, and even people may change.

We may realize, “you know what, I don’t actually LIKE being in a relationship with someone who doesn’t support me or express care and compassion”. And when we realize something like that, it’s so important that we muster the courage to leave those old desires, and even people, behind.

When we do, there is always something waiting for us that is better, that will more effectively serve our unfolding into a new, more integrated and healthy way of being.

Whether it be a new career, exercise routine, relationship, or city, it’s so important that we heed the advice of what our body tells us about what it really needs and wants.

Even if it’s something as simple as a damn fine cup of coffee.


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