It’s good that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But what about when things stay in Vagus? What about when trauma gets stuck in your body?
By Vagus, we mean the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is your body’s control center for calm. So when trauma gets trapped in the body, your Vagus nerve can be a major key to moving forward. Read on about what this nerve has got to do with trauma. Also find strategies that may help you be a good wingman and “activate” the calming side of your nervous system.
The Vagus nerve and trauma
Trauma has a way of holding onto us. It puts us on edge and keeps us in a persistent state of fear–in part by overwhelming the Vagus nerve’s ability to keep us calm.
The Vagus nerve helps the body recognize when a threat is no longer present, but this process can be disrupted by trauma.
Understanding the role of the Vagus nerve can shed light on why trauma affects us the way it does.
Sympathetic vs parasympathetic action and the Vagus nerve
When we get anxious, our heart may race, we might start sweating, and our muscles can tense up. This is the fight-or-flight response in action, giving us the energy we need to escape or challenge an oncoming threat. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for these effects.
But since we aren’t always under threat, our body needs a way to “cancel” the fear response.
Enter the parasympathetic nervous system and the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve, which travels from the base of the brain down to your organs and muscles, sends signals to the body to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and otherwise calm the body down.
Where does trauma come into play?
While many people think of trauma as being a mental or psychological experience, trauma is also “stored” in the physical body–think “muscle memory.” And, because of the mind-body connection, our mental and physical experiences can feed off each other.
Your emotions have a direct influence on the activity of your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, meaning that they also impact associated organ systems. This may help explain some of trauma’s lasting effects on the body.
Trauma, depression, and anxiety in (or rather, outside of) Vagus
Trauma is frequently associated with depression and anxiety via Vagus nerve activity–or lack thereof. This is because the Vagus nerve is responsible for counteracting stress.
Depression and anxiety are common responses to trauma, enabled by the sympathetic nervous system. Depression is associated with a sympathetic “freeze” response, which triggers an emotional and/or body shutdown. Anxiety connects to the sympathetic “fight” and/or “flight” responses, which result in a heightened state of tension.
The Vagus nerve is an important part of our physiology that helps reign in our physical stress response, thereby directly impacting our emotional experience and feelings of wellbeing.
Without enough Vagus nerve activity to combat chronic sympathetic activation, trauma survivors may experience persistent feelings of depression, withdrawal, or worry.
Altered functioning of the Vagus nerve
Trauma can cause us to get “stuck” in the fight-flight-freeze response. Following a traumatic event, our body starts to more frequently anticipate threat. The Vagus nerve may not inhibit this fear response as it would before the traumatic event–its normal functioning simply may not suffice after trauma. This physical change to our nervous systems happens in our body’s attempt to prepare us for future threatening events.
Why’s it so hard to get stuck outside of Vagus?
For ideal wellbeing, we want to cope with, process, and eventually accept or move on from our trauma. Being stuck in a fear response keeps us stuck in coping mode. That means we don’t get the chance to heal and move forward.
Countering the fear response: take a trip to Vagus
Fortunately, there are ways to manage the fear response–either from the “top down” or the “bottom up.” Strategies can start with changing the vagal response itself, which then alters our emotional experience, or with changing our emotional experience, which then alters the vagal response. Using this robust mind-body connection, you may be able to get to Vagus.
To illustrate the concept: medical stimulation of the Vagus nerve
Scientists are exploring the potential of Vagus nerve stimulation for conditions like depression and anxiety. The idea is that, if the Vagus nerve is underactive in these cases, stimulating its activity can help balance the way the brain works.
This form of treatment is intensive and often used as a “last resort” treatment, but ongoing research may clarify when medically-induced Vagus nerve stimulation is most appropriate and effective.
Stimulating the vagus nerve at home
There are much less invasive (and much more practical) ways to indirectly stimulate the Vagus nerve yourself.
Because underactivity of the Vagus nerve is associated with a chronic fear response, engaging in activities that mitigate the fear response may trigger Vagus nerve activation. This activation can then increase vagal tone, potentially improving the ability of the Vagus nerve to manage trauma-induced depression and anxiety symptoms.
What you can do
There are many relatively simple techniques that are thought to stimulate the Vagus nerve. Examples include:
- Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing
- Trauma-informed yoga
- Chanting, humming, singing, or gargling (stimulating the vocal cords)
So you activated your Vagus nerve and exited fight-or-flight… now what?
Thinking about traumatic experiences while in fight-flight-freeze mode will likely fuel the fire. So once you’re “unstuck” from this fear response, you may have the mind space to understand and process what happened.
Being stuck in the fear response mode means being flooded with difficult thoughts, images, and feelings that are often pushed to the side or avoided. The trauma attacks us in different ways, from different angles, but often in distorted ways.
Once in a calm state of body and mind, people can begin to face the reality of their trauma. As one examines the impact of their trauma, they may discover distorted thoughts about the self (such as feelings of shame, beliefs that they should have done something differently to prevent the trauma, and thoughts of helplessness).
The person may work on challenging these thoughts, with a focus on separating them from the reality of the trauma. Upon challenging these beliefs, the trauma can then be processed for what it is.
Trauma is tricky: handle with care.
Processing trauma is a delicate process. Simply re-living one’s trauma can do more harm than good. The processing has to be accompanied by a purposeful examination of one’s thoughts and beliefs related to the trauma.
Support and guidance from a therapist is the recommended course of action for processing trauma. However, barriers to accessing formal therapeutic support render this option unavailable for large portions of the population.
There are fortunately several approaches to help address your trauma and its symptoms. These include:
- Validation. Provide yourself with self-compassion, understanding, and unconditional support. These actions will help challenge negative self-views resulting from the trauma.
- Grounding. Focus on your five senses and attune yourself to the present moment. This action will help break the cycle of intrusive thoughts related to the trauma.
- Ask for help. Seek out the support of a loved one, friend, or peer. This action will help combat feelings of isolation commonly associated with trauma.
Remember that you are strong and resilient. You didn’t deserve what happened to you, and it’s only natural to face difficult thoughts and feelings after a traumatic event. Give yourself compassion, and give yourself time.