You’ve seen the news, if you have the stomach to read it: bank collapses and financial crises at home, international conflicts abroad; life-and-death issues surrounding energy and climate change; utter corruption and gridlock in government; the tyranny of tech giants and massive corporations; the isolation and despair of so many people, young and old; the everyday struggles of a vast majority of people just to get by.
How do any of us cope with what’s become the new normal? What is this doing to our bodies – and our sanity?
The answer is that it all has to do with the state of your vagus nerve. One of the longest of the body, the vagus originates at the top of the spinal cord and works its way through the heart, the lungs, the muscles of the face, the liver, and the digestive organs.
It is one of the major nerves of the body that drives all the involuntary nervous systems: the beat of your heart, the pressure in your arteries and veins, the state of your digestion, the rate of your breathing and much more.
It’s also a superhighway of information between the brain and the rest of the body, with 80 percent of information returning from the body to the brain.
According to trauma expert Dr Stephen Porges, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Indiana University, the vagus is always on high alert, scanning for any sort of danger in a manner far more subtle than the reactions of our five senses, a process he calls ‘neuroception.’
As Porges sees it, this scanning function has three major pathways:
This third ventral pathway has three functions: to connect with all the communication systems involved with caretaking; to slow down your heart rate, calming the effects of any fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system activity, the body’s response to stress of any sort; and to initiate the release of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a role in love, trust, intimacy and devotion.
Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a pioneer in the positive psychology movement, has been instrumental in studying how our health and well being are hugely affected by the vagus nerve.
She’s discovered that connecting with other people, even when fleeting, can create a ‘resonance’ that ultimately has a powerful effect on the vagus nerve and a healing effect on the rest of your body.
Sharing deeply from your heart initiates a big cascade of oxytocin, which acts like a virtuous circle to increase intimacy and healing.
Someone is said to have good ‘vagal tone’ when their stress levels are under control. And what usually creates good vagal tone is social connection and compassion.
As Frederickson puts it: ‘It broadcasts everything you feel — your moments of positivity resonance or their lack — to every part of you, readying you for either health or illness, and rendering you either more or less equipped for loving connection.’
The higher your vagal tone, the lower your blood pressure and heart rate, the better your heart rate variability, the lower your inflammation and pain, the better you manage mood, stress and anxiety, the better communication between gut, heart and brain, and much more.
The problem is that for too many of us, the vagus nerve is completely out of whack – from early difficulties or trauma – and we’re stuck in freeze or fight-or-flight, essentially all the time, experiencing life in a state of constant low level anxiety.
That has never been more true than today, when we are bombarded, minute by minute, by the latest terrible news.
But whether from your early life or today’s headlines, this kind of low level unease and poor vagal tone can be overcome, as Frederickson’s research shows, with shared positive emotions.
Frederickson calls it ‘upward spirals of the heart.’ The more we have altruistic thoughts, the healthier our body and the happier our lives. These positive emotions quickly spread through your social networks, creating a contagion of positivity and connection.
As Frederickson has found, those who experience the most frequent ‘positivity resonance’ in connection with others show the biggest increases in vagal tone.
‘Love,’ she says, ‘literally made people healthier.’
The fast track to all of this is the kind of deep sharing that occurs in a Power of Eight® group.
Deep connection, rather than competition, is the quality most essential to human nature: we were never meant to live a life of isolation and self-serving survival. Or a constant barrage of bad news.
Your Rx for these toxic times: join a Power of Eight® group and heal your life.
Sign up and receive FREE GIFTS including The Power of Eight® handbook and a special video from Lynne!