The autonomic nervous system is a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal. It contains three anatomically distinct divisions: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric.
The sympathetic nervous system is our UPPER. It’s more commonly known as our fight or flight response. When we are faced with a perceived threat (physical or emotional) determined neuroceptively, the sympathetic arm of our nervous system kicks into gear and brings about automatic and involuntary responses. In this state the chief neural transmitter catecholine is active, inducing secreting neural hormones like cortisol (glucocorticoid), adrenaline and noradrenaline. Responses then include increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, elevated respiratory rate, elevated blood sugars, more sweating, less salvation, eyes dilating. The sympathetic system shuts down many parasympathetic responses (urinary actvity, digestion, sexual organs) in order to utilise more energy to fuel the fight/flight response.
The parasympathetic nervous system is our DOWNER. It’s counter active to our stress activation response system. It works to slow down responses and bring about a state of homeostasis to the body, allowing it to rest, relax, digest, regenerate and repair itself. In this state the chief neural transmitter acetylcholine is active, inducing the secretion of neural hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, endorphin, melatonin, adenosine, serotonin. These are our calming and pleasure hormones that counteract stress. Parasympathetic responses include an increase of digestive enzymes, decreased heart rate, constriction of bronchial tubes in the lungs (aka better breathing rate), relaxed muscles, more salvation, lowered glucose levels, blood pressure, immunity activation.
In contrast to the rapid ‘fight or flight’ responses that are under the control of the sympathetic arm of the nervous system, the vagus nerve is is part of your parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates all of your body’s basic functions. The nerve is responsible for many of the slower, ‘rest and digest’ responses that we call the parasympathetic arm.
The vagus nerve has a larger distribution than any other cranial nerve. Originating in the medulla, the vagus nerve innervates structures in the neck, thorax, and abdomen and has influence over cardiac and digestive functions. As the vagus nerve travels from the brain stem to the abdomen, it gives off many branches. Two branches of great importance are the superior and recurrent laryngeal nerves. It carries 5 different fiber types: general somatic afferent, general visceral afferent, special visceral afferent, general visceral efferent, and special visceral efferent fibers.
The nerve consists of two thick bundles of individual neurons (nerve cells) that originate in the brain and pass out to the rest of the body through left- and right-sided openings at the bottom of the skull. Most of the individual neurons that make up the vagus nerve are sensory ones – about 100,000 on each side of the body in humans – which pass messages from the organs to the brain, and are activated by sensory input from the environment. The remainder are motor neurons, which send messages in the opposite direction, from the brain to organs, and directly control all of our muscle movements. The nerve is a sort of polymath of the parasympathetic system – it gets involved in everything from breathing, heart rate, swallowing, sneezing, digestion, appetite, immune responses and even our sexual arousal and orgasms.
The vagus nerve’s wide-ranging skill set comes from having a diverse array of neuron cell types at its disposal. These allow the nerve to pick up different types of sensory signals from different organs. Some, for instance, sense chemical signals like oxygen levels in the blood or the secretions of bacteria in the intestine, while others sense mechanical signals like stretching of the blood vessels and gut. The sensory and motor fibres of the nerve transmit intestinal signals to the central nervous system and exert biological and physiological responses. In particular, vagal afferent neurons form different terminal endings in the gut, including direct synapses with some enteroendocrine cells. It has a direct integrative role in the gastrointestinal regulation of appetite, hunger, satiation and glucose homeostasis
We can consciously use our vagus nerve to settle and soothe the nervous system, and through its regular activation and toning protocols, firing up electrical charges and impulses signalling safety, we can avoid sliding into a fight, flight, or freeze trauma responses, old behavioural patterns and various learnt defence mechanisms. Toning the vagus nerve allows you to better connect with yourself, your internal ant external environment, and strengthen your relational dynamics and social experiences.
Practising specific vagal toning exercises will help you:
- digest deep emotions while promoting overall emotional regulation
- instantly relieve anxiety
- push your “vagal brake” to reduce anxiety in the moment and prevent future occurrences of panic
- alleviate jaw, neck, trapezius and shoulder tension caused by cyclical states of stress response
- specific techniques increase your breathing and lung capacity
- regulate your heart rate and elevate HRV levels (this refers to the space and frequency between each heart beat)
When we activate and tone the vagus nerve directly, we can effectively process and manage stress levels, regulate our deepest emotions, release stored energy caused by traumatic and painful experiences, decrease chronic pain and promote anti-inflammatory responses, and foster a healthier relationship and resilience to stress. Using the healing powers of the vagus nerve, we can retrain our internal wiring system, creating a healthier baseline and window of tolerance. From this more balanced internal space, we begin to live with ease as opposed to dis-ease and discomfort, with intention rather than from subconscious beliefs and programming. We restore a sense of inner safety, peace and regulation.
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