Sometimes I get bumped when playing with my daughter and shake it off and keep going. Sometimes I get bumped and I lash out at her for being so insensitive. The difference in my reaction is more about my mental and physical state than the circumstances.
Perhaps you’ve also noticed that when someone cuts you off in traffic sometimes you react with patience and compassion. “Maybe they are having an emergency.” Other times you might feel personally affronted and ready to attack. “Get off the road!”
In essence, sometimes we go into a fight or flight response. Thankfully, other times we can remember that a bump is just part of the fun and our bodies can override the fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is what regulates our “rest and digest” and “tend and befriend” responses. The prime driving force of this calming system is the Vagus Nerve. This long nerve “wanders” (“vagus” means wanderer) through most major organs in the body and regulates hunger, digestion, the gag reflex, feeling calm and more.
I’ve been thinking about the vagus nerve because it’s been one of those weeks where one stressor has chased another. I was amazed at how little stuff was adding up to big stuff. While I’m lucky to be only facing “little stuff” it’s in the context of being surrounded by injustices and natural and human-made catastrophes. I was noticing that I was losing my ability to determine when I’m supposed to fight and when I’m supposed to rest. In other words, these are symptoms of the vagus nerve needing stimulation.
There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve since it is connected to so many parts of the body. Some of the most commonly cited DIY techniques include:
- Positive social relationships
- Tai Chi, yoga or qigong
- Cold temperatures – a cold drink or cold showers
- Massage with pressure
- Singing and chanting
- Supporting your digestion
- Deep breathing
This list happens to resemble some of my favorite ways to care for myself. Of course I’d add dancing to the list of ways to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and control the fight or flight response.
Not infrequently someone arrives at our weekly dance practice completely frazzled by life (we take turns in this role). She might even have tears in her eyes through the first half of class. But we all just keep moving. The circle of dancers, the movement, the singing and laughing is all incredibly soothing for the nervous system. By the end of the night everyone is smiling. I was reminded of this power again just this past week when the cloud of worry that had been over my head for several days completely evaporated through the dancing and was still gone the next day. Now I have a little bit of neuroscience to describe why this happens.
If you are finding yourself feeling set off by the stresses in your life you can do something to get out of the fight or flight response. Even if you are fighting for justice, your body needs a balance of the “tend and befriend” response. There are many ideas on the internet about how to stimulate the vagus nerve. I’m still looking for a favorite reference.
In the meantime, you are welcome to join a qigong or dance practice group any week.
Calm, ease, and joy to you,
Drop in any week to Healing Waters Qigong, a Spring Forest Qigong practice group, or to the Wisdom Dances dance practice, based in Laura Shannon’s research on traditional dances as tools for healing and transformation.
A Tender Space for Transformation
It can be so frustrating to feel that the healing or creation you seek eludes you. This is why I help people address the root energetic and spiritual nature of their challenges through qigong healing.