21. The Vagus Nerve: your secret weapon to responding not reacting!
It was a warm summer day, and I felt grateful to be alive, my mind at peace, and my body calm as I walked into work humming. But a single sentence was about to change all that in under one second. All I remember was that because of that one sentence, my mind was instantly flooded with shame, fear, and anxiety, all of which I could literally feel surging and pumping through me with each increasingly fast heartbeat; my body had started to bunch up, all my muscles on the ready to attack the source of these words I perceived as a threat to my life.
Are you wondering what was the sentence that could have possibly triggered me into such a reaction?
'You must have made an error on the till yesterday as the end-of-day takings were wrong.'
Yup, that was all The Sabre-Toothed Tiger Lady said!!!
So, I don't know about you, but learning how to RESPOND as opposed to REACT has always been on my list of priorities as it appears to be a never-ending work in progress! I now see it as an art form at which I am definitely better at, but it still lurks around any corner where I feel judged or doubted.
So, in order to tame this lioness within, I set about finding out how one could remain in the extremely mature, calm and collected room of 'response' and not run like a bat out of hell straight into the adjacent room and the jungle of mayhem called 'REACT', and I found something extraordinary I would love to share if I may!
What is this vagus nerve I keep hearing about?
The vagus nerve is our longest cranial nerve, connecting the brain stem to the body and is one of our often forgotten 'superpowers'! It assists our immune system and helps our inflammatory response to disease and has two branches: the Dorsal, that heads down the spine and the Frontal, that feeds into the face, heart and lungs. In our everyday lives, both sides may be activated as we analyse our environment and scan it for any signs of danger activating the dorsal nerve(i.e. sabre tooth tigers or bush fires) or safety, activating the frontal nerve (i.e yet another pleasant day on the savanna.
When we sense danger, the 'dorsal' vagus nerve is triggered, and we go into pure physical response mode; the heart speeds up, sending blood to our arms and legs, preparing us to fight or run away, our digestion slows down, mouth goes dry, we lose control of our face, voice and hearing to as to not detract any energy from our limbs. Sound familiar?! It's very clever, really, but not when you've only got the till count wrong or your partner turns up late and says, 'Calm down, it's not the end of the world (which it isn't, of course!)
So, here's the moment of magic. Ready?!
When we feel safe the 'frontal' vagus nerve is activated, which slows our heart rate down which instigates calm and communication; it allows us to change facial expressions, speak and show feelings -everything we need for human connection with which comes soothing, safety and reassurance and allows for the prefrontal cortex to assess and respond appropriately to the situation.
So how do we activate this incredible super vagus nerve? Because I don't know about you, but I want/ need more of the frontal one in my life !!
One word – BREATHE!!
Remember, we learnt that the frontal vagus nerve works with the heart and lungs, so if we want to activate the calm and our measured selves, all we have to do is breathe!! Fantastic! Now here's the way to do it!
One of the main ways you can stimulate the healthy function of the vagus nerve, and is the one I use, is through deep, slow belly breathing.
- As soon as you feel triggered, immediately start to breathe more slowly.
- Breathe more deeply from the belly. Think about expanding your abdomen and widening your rib cage as you inhale.
- Exhale longer than you inhale(In for 7 out for 10) and take all the time you need. Yes, it might look a bit weird, but it works! Plus it takes the person by surprise, which also immediately diffuses the situation a little!
- Enjoy being in the mature, calm and collected room! Easy Peasy lemon squeezy!!
Re-enter the Sabre-Toothed Tiger Lady; 'Zoë, you've really made a mess of this; I am very unhappy with you.'
Me + frontal vagus + breathing+ smile; 'Ah, you must be having a tough time at the moment if my mistake causes you such unhappiness. I am sorry for you; that sucks; what can I do to help you move forward?’
YESSSSS, I DID IT and now so can you!!