Vagus nerve, emotions & yoga

Many people who don’t know a lot about trauma think that trauma has something to do with something that happened to you a long time ago. In fact, the past is the past and the only thing that matters is what happens right now. And what is trauma is the residue that a past event leaves in your own sensory experiences in your body and it’s not that event out there that becomes intolerable but the physical sensations with which you live that become intolerable and you will do anything to make them go away.”
Bessel van der Kolk

The vagus nerve serves a really important role in the connection of mind and body. For instance, it helps to explain how our emotional states are manifested in the physical body, from that anxious knot in your tummy to the heaviness of sadness or the lower back pains of fear and insecurity. And as someone who specialises in both body work and emotional coaching, this is particularly interesting to me.

The vagus nerve innervates all of our internal organs with the notable exception of the adrenal glands. As part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve is a “rest and digest” nerve; calming, reducing, returning the body’s function to normal like the brakes on a car after acceleration. The accelerator in this case is the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” mechanism.

 

According to Darwin himself, “the heart, guts and brain communicate intimately via a nerve” – the vagus nerve – “the critical nerve in the expression and management of emotions in both humans and animals…. When the mind is strongly excited it instantly affects the state of the viscera.” This is, of course, why our guts react strongly to our emotional state, why we get that knot in our tummy when we are excited, or butterflies when we are anxious or nervous.

“what makes life unbearable is not emotions but physical sensations.”

And when the physical sensations become intolerable and we will do anything to make those feelings disappear. People take drugs to make it disappear, they cut themselves to make it disappear, and they starve themselves to make it disappear, and they have sex with anyone who comes along to make it disappear and “once you have these horrible sensations in your body, you’ll do anything to make it go away,” says van der Kolk. And of course it’s true.

People who continuously experience such strong emotions learn to shut off the sensations in their bodies. And they go through life not ‘feeling’ anything.

Such people tend to stay away from experiences in which they might be confronted with their feelings directly, in which they might be asked to feel, to connect with themselves again. This is not limited to mindfulness exercises but happens in other types of movement, meditative, or healing practices, such as qi gong, yoga or massage. Emotional trauma stored within the body is often released during these practices. Some people search for it; it’s what draws them to yoga or meditation, searching for deeper connection between mind and body.

However, with skillful handling, positive intention and a good relationship with your practitioner, it is possible to access these states and release suppressed emotions safely.

Through massage and body work for example, the tissues of the body can be encouraged to surrender their stored emotional states, releasing the tissues themselves as the emotions emerge. If organs are involved in the pathology, then function can be restored to the organs themselves. Through NLP the emotional states can be accessed and released cognitively, with a corresponding release experienced in the tissues of the body.

Of course, people are complicated, and healing for many people occurs by combining movement work such as yoga, emotional release, nutritional counseling and talking therapy such as NLP, and meditation or mindfulness practices.

According to Tom Myers, the fascia guru, the “link between emotions and bodily health is a very ancient idea, which has been around for a very, very long time. Modern medical science is actually late in recognizing a mind-body connection and the importance it plays for our health and well-being.”

Somatic pioneers of last century, like Wilhelm Reich and Ida Rolf, pointed out that it’s not just the mind impacting the body through biochemical pathways. The body impacts the mind as well, because we tend to hold unresolved emotional trauma in the tissues, thereby locking us permanently into certain patterns of thinking and behaving.” Which just goes to reiterate my point – by manipulating the tissues of the body itself, it is possible to affect, improve and restore the function of the mind.

When stress builds up in the brain, it only has two ways out — one is the chemistry of the body. Stress changes the messenger molecules or neuropeptides that are bathing the nervous system and thus changes your mood. And those chemicals have a variety of effects all over the body, not just the nervous system.

But the other way that distress manifests itself is in patterns of tension. And the trouble with those patterns arises when they become lodged permanently as chronic tension patterns. Patterns that move are just fine. We get angry. We get un-angry. We get sad. We get un-sad. The trouble is with the things that come along and stay for a long time, like the unresolved anger or the unresolved grief.

With those, the brain keeps sending out the same messages to the same muscles, and so you take on a specific postural pattern. And after a while, your mind has fit into that pattern, your muscles have fit into that pattern, your fascia has fit into that pattern, your distribution of energy has fit into that pattern, and that may in itself cause illness or lack of ability to move.

At this stage, talking therapy might not be enough. You also have to address those chronic emotional holdings in the body through bodywork, massage or yoga, stretching the tissues, the fascia. What works for you, might not work for someone else – again this is where the skill and experience of the practitioner(s) comes into play. It works best, I’d say, when one practitioner can approach the problem from both sides. Talking therapy, massage and long slow stretches such as those you’d find in yoga.

One of the wonderful things about yoga is that because of the sustained stretch held in many yoga poses, you actually do change the connective tissue. So you change the pattern of that fascia and thus you can get down to the chronic tension patterns lodged in the tissues. This can lead to a wonderful emotional unfolding over the long term.

As human beings, we have a tremendous plasticity, a tremendous potential for change. We used to think that there was very little plasticity within our nervous sytem. Now we know there’s lots of neural plasticity. We used to think that there was no genetic plasticity. Now we know there’s lots of genetic plasticity. So yes, you share genetic material with your parents, but your experience turns on or turns off those genes and can do it all through your life and in response to trauma, to exercise, to everything. So the list of things that can be changed in the genetic expression keeps growing longer every year.

And fascia is the same. Fascia is very fluid, very dynamic, and has these kinds of plastic or viscoelastic properties that allow us to change in ways that we haven’t thought we could open and change.

So, for true emotional release at the deepest level, we have to treat both the mind and the body. The mind affects the body and vice versa. Treat yourself to some NLP coaching and then hit the yoga studio or, if you prefer it, do it the other way around.

Most importantly, if you’re anything like most people, just take a step in the right direction.