Did you ever wonder why it can be so challenging to connect with your own body and emotions? Or why your health sometimes seems to take a hit? The answers may lie in the state of your nervous system and the experiences you had in childhood.
I invite you to embark on a journey to explore the intricate links between disconnection from our bodies and emotions, our nervous system, and early attunement from caregivers
UNDERSTANDING TRAUMA, NERVOUS SYSTEM AND VAGUS NERVE
What lays ground for our emotional states and capacity of self-regulation?
Our health, healing potential, and self-regulation are rooted in our nervous system. The first step on any journey is understanding, so let’s begin by exploring its foundations.
A lot of my insights are currently drawn from the book The Polyvagal Theory by Stephen W. Porges, whose research on the vagus nerve is an incredible aid in treating trauma, rewiring our nervous system patterns, emotional states, and behaviors.
His book is aptly titled The Polyvagal Theory & Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Emotional Attachment, Communication, and Emotional Regulation.
Recent research shows that the nervous system configuration and the strength of our vagus nerve are determined by our parents. Isn’t it fascinating? The parents’ nervous system and their attunement to their child define how their child’s nervous system will be configured, having a direct impact on which genes get expressed.
HOW WE CLASSIFY THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Our nervous system (NS) collects, processes and controls all information in our body. The NS consists of the central NS (the brain and the spinal cord, which connects the brain to most parts of our body) and the peripheral NS (all nerves outside the brain and spinal cord).
The PERIPHERAL NS has two parts:
SOMATIC (voluntary) – under our conscious control. It manages external actions and the movement of our skin and muscles. It acts like a communication channel between the muscles and our brains. (Essentially, we have three “brains”: one in our head, another in our heart, and the third in our intestines). So, it receives messages from the brain and spinal cord and sends information back to them from the body.
AUTONOMOUS (involuntary) – this system oversees glands, internal organs (heart, lungs, intestines…), the hormonal system and the immune system. The body manages all tasks like digesting food, breathing, pumping blood through the heart, recognizing and responding to danger without us needing to think about it.
Autonomous NS is further divided into two parts:
SYMPATHETIC NS – when facing a danger, we can mobilize our strength in stress response (fight or flight). This part is also responsible for activating the adrenal glands (which release epinephrine/adrenaline into the bloodstream).
PARASYMPATHETIC NS – helps with regeneration and calming our bodies. It conserves energy, slows down heart rate, assists with digestion, and lowers blood pressure. It’s the restorative NS. According to Steve Porges, it is divided into two branches (the frontal branch/social engagement system and the dorsal system responsible for freezing/immobilization).
Each of these modes is responsible for different physiological and emotional states and behaviours.
Today, I want to tell you more about the vagus nerve, which plays a significant role in trauma healing and overall regulation (from Stephen Porges’ book, The Polyvagal Theory).
POLYVAGAL THEORY AND THE VAGUS NERVE
Now, we’re approaching the aspect that Dr. Porges finds the most intriguing. To summarize his extensive research findings, he estabilished the polyvagal theory, where “poly” signifies multiple and “vagal” refers to the vagus nerve.
The polyvagal theory basically explains how we find safety and connection with others, how we withdraw, how we go into fight or flight, and which survival mechanisms we use.
The vagus nerve is essentially our parasympathetic nervous system (a part of the autonomic nervous system) – it is the system that helps us slow down.
All mammals have the ability to detect safety, danger, or life-threatening situations (what we call neuroception). Our organism depends on the internal (interoception) and external (exteroception) cues to determine the adaptation of our neural responses.
THE VAGUS NERVE
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and it is very long, wandering from the medulla oblongata (the lower part of the brain where the brain connects to the spinal cord).
This nerve has two sides, dorsal (back) and ventral (front), going down the entire body. This branching is considered the broadest distribution of all nerves in the body.
1) VENTRAL BRANCH OF THE VAGUS NERVE (VN)
Activation of the ventral branch is associated with improved health, positive states, and relaxation. When this branch is activated, we enter into a connective mode. This system can function when we feel safe and connected to our environment.
As mentioned earlier, our body constantly evaluates safety, based on information from our senses but also from our neuroreceptors.
As result, our subconscious evaluates, whether action is needed or not.
In response to stress or a sense of threat, we can activate the front branch of the VN – social engagement. We seek help, a soothing voice, touch, eye contact – all these actions physiologically calm our heart and lungs, lowering blood pressure and deepening our breath – and calming our nervous system.
HOW DOES THIS IMPORTANT BRANCH OF THE VAGUS NERVE DEVELOP?
We process everything we observe and react to the environment. A child responds to feeling of safety with her parent or caregiver, as well as to frightening or intimidating signals.
In his theory, Stephen Porges described the process where our nervous system constantly looks for “clues” of danger throughout our lives, using neuroception to pick up cues from our environment.
It’s like we’re scanning our environment throughout our lives. And just like breathing and digestion, this is an autonomic response of our bodies.
During neuroception, both sides of the vagus nerve can be stimulated but each of them reacts differently.
The front side reacts to perception of safety in the environment and in relationships. This branch enables secure emotional connections with others as well as physical safety.
HOW ARE WE EQUIPPED AS NEWBORNS?
As newborns, we can’t fight or stand up and run, so these branches are not yet activated. However, the dorsal vagus is. As young children, we are very good at this – we can withdraw when needed. That’s when we enter a state of freezing, of withdrawal. At the beginning of our life, not much happens; we simply exist. We eat, we sleep, we eliminate and our primary need is safety and comfort.
The dorsal branch of the parasympathetic system (Dorsal vagus complex) works perfectly.
The front branch of social engagement, on the other hand, still needs to be formed. That’s why children learn by observing their parents. It’s about mirroring in the eyes of their nurturing figures.
Learning is the only pathway to development. The nerve responsible for social connection (the frontal one) needs to myelinate – to be coated with fat in order to transmit quality information. (This stands in sharp contrast with the dorsal nerve which acts rapidly, clumsily and leads to our shutdown.)
The fastest phase of myelination occurs during the first 6 months of our lives.
To build this front branch, we need caregivers as role models.
WHY ARE WE SO OFTEN DISCONNECTED FROM OUR BODIES AND EMOTIONS AS ADULTS?
Our body builds the front branch of the vagus nerve by using our parent’s one as a model. This is where it all begins.
We develop the functions of this nerve through communication and interaction with our caregiver’s vagus nerve. We sort of borrow their nerve, whether it’s healthy or not, in order to learn how to connect with others.
During the first years of our life, we are totally dependent on our caregiver as our nervous system is still in process of myelinization. Have you ever wondered why babies love sucking and chewing?
It has a calming effect – allowing our heart to calm down through the vagus nerve. The same goes for skin-to-skin contact, which is why we hug each other when we get older, but we need to learn this experience first.
2) THE BACKSIDE OF VN
The backside of the vagus nerve reacts to signs of danger, activating our self-defense mode. When experiencing a hint of extreme danger, we might react by freezing, meaning we shut down completely. This indicates that the dorsal nerve has taken over.
Stephen W. Porges describes how we respond to danger with three different biologically pre-programmed hierarchical ways (according to him, this is a better explanation than balancing between the parasympathetic and sympathetic NS). He describes the innate hierarchy of responses within our autonomic nervous system.
RESPONSE TO STRESS AND INVOLVEMENT OF THE NS:
If our parents weren’t emotionally attuned to us during our childhood, they might have responded to our stress using their own defense mechanisms, such as yelling at us, hitting us, or simply ignoring us. It is also possible that apart from stressful situations, they couldn’t connect with our enthusiasm and joy.
a) THE OLDEST PATHWAY AND STRESS RESPONSE – FREEZE/IMMOBILIZATION – Shock Response (DORSAL VAGUS)
The most primitive response (evolutionarily in all vertebrates) involves the engagement of the dorsal side of the vagus nerve. It responds to extreme danger, forcing us to a complete shutdown.
b) ACTIVATION: FIGHT/FLIGHT – MOBILIZATION
This response is related to the activation of the sympathetic NS. Release of adrenaline makes us quickly take action to escape danger or ward off threats. This pathway is evolutionarily younger.
The vagus nerve enervates the organs of the immune system, such as the spleen, thymus, and intestines. To function properly, they require a good vagal nerve activity (ventral branches).
Constant activation of the fight/flight mode deactivates these organs; therefore, our immune system is switched off.
c) THE EVOLUTIONNARY YOUNGEST PATHWAY FOR SOCIAL CONNECTION, RESPONSIBLE FOR REGULATION
This is the most recent response of the nervous system and is located on the ventral (front) side of the vagus nerve. It handles our sense of safety, connectedness, and social interactions, promoting a state of calmness.
Young children don’t possess the skills to self-regulate or soothe themselves. As we explained earlier, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve isn’t myelinated at birth (a process helping the nerve run things more smoothly and rapidly). To mature properly, it relies on strong emotional bonding and co-regulation with their caregivers serving as role models.
PARENTS TEACH US TO REGULATE THROUGH CO-REGULATION
Parents teach us how to self-regulate and calm down. We rock babies, talk to them, connect with their hearts and lower their heart rate through our facial expressions and tone of voice.
This need for connection persists even in adulthood.
For instance, in the aftermath of an accident, immediate connection with someone can reduce the likelihood of developing PTSD because it instills a sense of safety, engaging the ventral branch of our vagus nerve.
HOW WE PERCEIVE OURSELVES AND THE WORLD DEPENDS ON OUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
As you can see, regulation of our nervous system directly determines how we perceive the world.
In everyday life, we operate within this hierarchy of stress responses.
Throughout the day, our nervous system responds to the feeling of safety but also gets mobilized when we experience threat.
In danger, our body goes into the oldest immobilization mode. This touches our dorsal VN and locks us into freezing, numbness, dissociation. In such a moment, we don’t see a way out. We are disconnected from ourselves and from bodily sensations.
HOW TRAUMA AFFECTS THESE PATHWAYS
For people who have experienced traumatic events, developmental or complex trauma, the ability to scan the environment for danger may be somewhat skewed.
Since our bodies are wise and try to protect us from ever experiencing something horrific or being treated as before, they may start scanning and evaluating many stimuli in our environment as dangerous (stimuli that others perceive as neutral).
Continue reading here.