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.
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!