For years I said ‘I’m working towards better balance in my life’.
Turns out I was wrong. It’s an ‘adaptable response to life’ I should have been seeking!
You might be a sportsperson, a busy parent or grandparent who is struggling to juggle the many demands. I really hope this blog helps you understand that adaptability, not balance, is the GOAL. And there are very simple tools to help you become more adaptable.
I’ve been studying the Vagus nerve. (It’s flipping complex and I nearly didn’t write this because my knowledge is still patchy.)
The Vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves and it wanders around our body. It sends signals from our body to our brain to give feedback on our safety. It’s a key part of preparing us for threat and is a fascinating process.
Let me share why this nerve matters!
We’ve been faced with huge challenges recently, haven’t we? Despite my ever-optimistic outlook, I have occasionally fallen foul of feeling anxious and worried about world events. How do you get on with that? I know I can’t control them, but learning to let go of things I have no control over has been an ongoing lesson.
I’ve got this deep feeling that the way we handle ourselves in the coming months will be vital for the health of the human race and planet. If our vagus nerve is the antenna for perceived threat (real of false) then learning more about its role but be a good thing?
That’s a big claim, isn’t it?! I’ll unpack my thought processes - then maybe you and your Vagus nerve can become best of friends?
In my model of the world (where taking care of ourselves is vital for broader humanity) if I can handle the stresses I am faced with at an individual level, then I will be a resourceful and resilient human. Feeling resourceful allows me / us to be creative rather than fearful. And the world certainly needs creativity just now! We ain’t going to fix our current problems by doing more of our current behaviour. So learning to handle stress and downgrade our fear response will move us towards creativity and hence solutions, both individually and collectively.
The work of Stephen Porges in recent years has shown our body’s response to stress is more complex than being like an on/off switch. The old concept of ‘fight and flight’ versus ‘rest and digest’ is too simplistic. He states that
‘most diseases, including chronic diseases
of physical health are really diseases of the
autonomic nervous system’.
That’s a challenging statement. But assuming it has some truth behind it, just think how we could help our body heal, by calming our autonomic nervous system.
His work proposes that our ability for social engagement is also inhibited by feeling stressed in our body:
“the nervous system evaluates risk and matches neurophysiological state with the actual risk of the environment. When the environment is appraised as being safe, it …enabl(les) social engagement and calm visceral states.… In contrast, some individuals experience a mismatch and the nervous system appraises the environment as being dangerous even when it is safe. This mismatch results in physiological states that support fight, flight, or freeze behaviours, but not social engagement behaviours.”
I’ve seen this in the last 2 years. Having been isolating, I’ve seen people anxious about mixing in class again. And I’ve seen my family unsure how to engage socially. You only have to look at the figures for anxiety and mental health issues to know the last 3 years have had a dramatic impact. And all those individuals, struggling, will have a societal impact.
So what can we do?
We can’t stop our body from reacting to threat (perceived or real) but we can listen to it and help it turn off the sympathetic nervous system really easily. In doing so we become more adaptable. As I say in class, ‘flexibility is king’.
But how on earth do you ‘listen’ to your body? The truth is, you’re doing it already. But maybe not consciously.
Our Vagus Nerve is largely connected to our eyes, ears, heart, larynx, diaphragm, lungs, neck, facial muscles and jaw. In fact 80% of the fibres from our Vagus nerve bring information from these areas of our body to our brain. Only 20% of the signals go the other way. So that tight neck, that sore jaw, that restricted breathing… are maybe already telling you something!
It is far more subconscious and ‘reflexive’ than we realise. Our body can’t not communicate. It is sharing information with us all the time. And given the Vagus nerve regulates threat, if we allow it to calm down it can help us to be more adaptable. This is then linked with our ability to regenerate and renew, our ability to heal.
Have a think. What are your signs of stress?
A racing mind?
A sore neck or tight areas of your body?
High chest / shallow breathing?
Big or heavy sighs?
Poor focus and concentration?
A dry mouth?
Aches and pains?
What do you tend to do about it?
• You can ignore it. (Until of course the stress is so much that you can’t!)
• You can identify the source of your stress - what’s causing it? And you can choose to respond differently to it. This requires thought and often discussion and takes time. It’s a mental shift.
• You can acknowledge it and then re-set your vagal nerve with a short exercise and allow your system to calm and heal. This is a physical approach. Your mental / emotional resourcefulness will improve after you’ve shifted your body’s state.
If you currently practise Pilates, Yoga or do somatic work you will have good body awareness and tune in to your body’s signals already. Hands up if you feel better after a Pilates class? Settled, calmer, more mobile, happier, relaxed. Yup! I KNOW, and my Pilates / Yoga students over the years tell me that movement helps alter their stress state really quickly.
It’s no co-incidence that these forms of exercise work best. They are focussed on the breath. And in fact, the Vagus nerve travels through the diaphragm. The Vagus nerve helps create the optimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our body, so when we exercise or do special breathing techniques, we are strongly responding to the Vagus nerves feedback. For all you sporty folk who measure your HRV (heart rate variability), your HRV is a sign of a healthy vagal tone - where your body is adapting well and has the flexibility to switch between a stress response and a non-stressed state.
Stephen Porgess’s work on Polyvagal Theory has really improved the way we understand human responses to stress.
Are you adaptable?
Here are some simple exercises (link here: https://youtu.be/AJMyHzkj4Zg) I’ve found that will ‘re-set’ your Vagus nerve and down-regulate stress in your body. Try these moves anytime in the day to shift you into a more resourceful and adaptable state.
We’d love to know how it makes you feel! email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback or leave a comment beneath the exercise video.