The vagus nerve is responsible for the regulation of our internal organ functions and one of the body’s most important parasympathetic nervous system pathways. As such, improving the vagus nerve function opens a path for improving our capacity to be empathetic and resilient people even during stressful times.. Today, Ani Anderson and Brian Trzaskos discuss the Polyvagal Theory and improving the vagus nerve function with somatic practices, tools, and skills. Brian explains both the benefit and tools of toning the vagus nerve to create higher heart rate variability and its connection to identifying the skills that make you a better coach. Tune in to this episode with Ani and Brian to deep dive into improving your vagus nerve function.
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How To Improve The Vagus Nerve Function With Somatic Practices, Tools, And Skills
Brian, how are you? I’m excited to talk to you about some geeky nerd stuff.
We’ll nerd out.
We’re going to feed Brian’s squirrel. We joke that he’s like a squirrel that likes to collect nuts. He likes to collect info nuggets. In this episode, we’re talking about Vagus Nerve Function. The vagus nerve is the popular kid in school. I’m curious what do you think was what’s up with that?
A bigger theory has a lot to do with that. Stephen Porges’ work exploded onto the scene a few years ago. It has been important. A lot of the work around trauma in the vagus nerve has been pretty explosive too in terms of information. A lot of popular books written were about how important it is to tone the vagus nerve.
There are some achievement high-performance aspects that people have latched on to with the vagus nerve stuff. One of the things that is very popular is cold plunging. I was thinking about getting you a cold plunge bucket for our house for Christmas but we’ve got the lake right next to us so I didn’t think we needed to do that.
In an upcoming episode, we’ll see Ani do a cold plunge.
I do like to go to the lake when it’s cold. Maybe we can talk a little bit about why that is. We’re talking about vagus nerve functions. There are several ways that we can talk about the vagus nerve through the context of the different somatic stuff that we do.
At Somatic Coaching Academy, we work in the realm of somatic practices, tools, and skills. That’s what creates a complete somatic coach. Complete somatic coach is you have to be able to have expertise in all three of those areas.
What’s the difference?
Can we talk about it in the sense of vagus nerve function as we go through and talk about it?
Do you want to talk about somatic practices first?
Let’s talk about that and back up for a second and show what the vagus nerve is for a moment. What is the vagus nerve? It is the tenth cranial nerve. Twelve cranial nerves exit directly from the brain into the body and other places. The vagus nerve is the longest of those nerves. It’s one of the longest nerves outside of the central nervous system that extends through the body. The vagus nerve starts in the brain stem and goes down to the very ends of the sexual organs. It extends quite long.The vagus nerve is the 10th of the 12 cranial nerves that exit directly from the brain into the body and other places. The vagus nerve is the longest of those nerves. Click To Tweet
We talk about the vagus nerve but there are two nerves at least. This is where the whole idea of Polyvagal theory comes from. Poly means more than one. It’s more than one nerve. The vagus nerve acts more like a conduit for at least two nerve pathways which we call the ventral vagal complex and the dorsal vagal complex. Ventral means front. It innervates things in the front of the body like the face, eyes, inner ears, middle part of the ear, throat, fairings, larynx, heart, and lungs in the ventral vagal complex. The dorsal they go complex extends down innervating the lungs and the heart but then below the diaphragm, it innervates the gut and then down to the end of the sexual organs.
What makes the biggest nerve cool is that it innervates so many different things.
One of the things that makes it cool is that the vagus nerve is a mixed nerve. It’s got both sensory and motor function capabilities. The way our nervous system works is that sensory information comes into the brain or the nervous system because it can come into the spinal cord into the midbrain and cortex. Sensory information comes into the nervous system, and then there’s a motor output and response to the sensory input. With our students, we had this little mantra, sensory in and motor out. Understand that all of our behavior, which is motor out, is predicated by the sensory in that comes in. That’s how we’re wired. There’s no motor response without some type of sensory initiator for it.
It’s such a cool thing in terms of sensation-based motivation coaching because a lot of people want to talk about the behavior or what we’re doing with the motor out but not a lot of people are talking about where that comes from.
It’s the sensory base that initiates that motor response. The vagus nerve is a mixed nerve. This is a fascinating thing. It’s at 80% sensory fibers compared to 20% motor fibers. There’s a 4 to 1 difference in the amount of sensory information that flows in the vagus nerve versus motor output that comes back from the brain. What that lets us know is that in some ways, the brain places four times more value on the century information coming into it than its motor control outward on the body, which is fascinating. The vagus is like our listening nerve.
It makes a lot of sense because we need a lot of information to determine what to do.
It’s how our brain listens. Can we talk about things like active listening in coaching, leadership, and management, and how important that is? We’ve all been around people, leaders, and managers who don’t listen. They motor. They just act. They’re not listening but that’s not how we’re wired to function in a healthy balance. A healthy balance, the way we’re wired, is that we’d be listening four times more than we’re acting. Physiology reflects that. That’s a big part of the vagus nerve which is one of the reasons. The vagus nerve is super cool.
Let’s talk a little bit about somatic practices. What are somatic practices?
Somatic practices are commonly known. They’re things like yoga, Tai chi, Qigong, breathwork, and cold plunging. Somatic practices are things that we do to help us better regulate our breathing but they can also be practices like better self-massage. Somatic practices are practices we’re doing with the body. Somatic means body-oriented. Body-centered practices mean we’re doing a practice to them. Certain somatic practices help to tone the vagus nerve.
Not all somatic practices would tone the vagus nerves but certain ones are going to do that. We facilitated that in our core centering programs. Our core centering programs are specifically designed to help people tone the vagus nerve because we’re pulling in all these different features of how that would happen. Cold plunging tones the vagus nerve. Meditation and breathwork tones the vagus nerve. We know from our experience that when you do things in a certain order, it makes it easier to tone the vagus nerve. You’re not throwing spaghetti at the wall. You’re doing it in a very very scientific way.
There’s something interesting. The vagus nerve is our primary parasympathetic nerve. We talk about the autonomic nervous system. We have our sympathetic nervous system, which is fight or flight. Our parasympathetic nervous system is rest and digest or shut down. With the sympathetic nerve system, think about the gas pedal and the person with the nervous system is a brake pedal in our metabolism.
For people who have their vagus nerve lesioned like to have it cut, the resting heart rate of mammals or humans naturally goes to about 100 to 120 beats per minute. Most people think the resting heart rate is 70 or 80. The natural resting heart rate of mammals is very high. Mammals are naturally sympathetic characters. We’re very highly wound up. Your heart rate would be 120 beats per minute if you didn’t have a vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is acting all of the time to slow the system down. We’re under this constant parasympathetic input.
Here’s the thing. When we have a stress response, part of it is that our sympathetic input goes up but the other part is that your brain pulls the parasympathetic influence away. We naturally go high because our resting state is high. With somatic practices, what we’re doing is toning the vagus nerve. Toning means to make stronger.
We’re making the vagus nerve pathways stronger. When the vagus nerve pathways get stronger, they have a greater capacity to influence the sympathetic dominance that’s occurring in our body as mammals. That becomes more of our resting state. It’s almost like the car gets put on cruise control rather than the gas pedal going down faster with every little stress that we’re experiencing.
This is why we need to practice. We go to the gym. We know that’s important why you need to practice toning your vagal nerve because the vagus nerve function can help us to be the humans we want to be in the world.
You could do that in a lot of ways. A lot of people are doing great things around toning their vagus. We’re big advocates of doing it in a certain way to get the most effective bang for your buck so that you’re helping to build on foundational elements of somatic competencies. When you do core centering practices, that’s our way of helping people to consistently and effectively tone their vagus nerves that over time the vagus nerve helps to be a better regulator of their nervous system.
It sounds like that’s important. Do that every day. Don’t stop there. What about somatic tools?
Somatic practices are great. People do those for themselves all the time. That’s critically important. Let’s go deeper though with somatic tools. In terms of the vagus nerve, we want to talk about heart rate variability. For those of us who don’t know about heart rate variability, it’s the variability of heart rate like what it sounds. For every inhalation, every time we take an in-breath, we have a sympathetic nervous system response.
We go into a little bit of fight or flight. A fight or flight is an excessive sympathetic response but every time we take in breath, our body hits the gas a little bit. Every time we do an exhale, our body hits a break a little bit. Every inhale is associated with the sympathetic nervous system. Every exhale is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
I am doing it. Are you doing it?
I’m exhaling a little bit. What does that feel like? Inhale is a little gas and exhale is a little break. You could do that mindfully with somatic practices if you want a little bit of uplift or calm down. You can use that to inhale and exhale. However, what happens is every time we inhale and exhale since we have a little bit of a sympathetic input and a little parasympathetic input, our heart rate changes. With sympathetic input, our heart rate is going to speed up. With parasympathetic, our heart rate’s going to slow down.
Our hearts doing a lot of work.
That’s what’s called the variability in our heart rate. If your heart rate stays the same between when you exhale or inhale, it doesn’t change much. That’s a very low heart rate variability. It’s funny when I first started hearing about heart rate variability. I thought, “Don’t I want like it’s a steady heart rate of whatever 50 beats per second, per minute, or whatever right along? Is that what I want?” I found out that’s not what I want because low heart rate variability or less adaptability of your heart rate to move between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system has been linked to higher mortality rates and more disease.
It’s about adaptability.
We want to be adaptable. The higher the heart rate variability, the more adaptable and resilient our physiology is. That’s what we’re going after with this. That’s all the function of the vagus nerve. The better-toned and adaptable vagus nerve equates to better heart rate variability. We know that people with higher levels of heart rate ability variability tend to be happier, more resilient, more effective, and disease-resistant. They live their lives in healthier, happier, and more resilient ways when they have higher heart rate variability.
It would make you think, “If I can raise my heart rate variability, does that mean that I’m going to be happier and more resilient?” Yes, that is with that means. You’ll be more positive. You’ll tend to think positively more often. The interesting is thing that a lot of people are trying to think more positively. They’re doing coursework on thinking more positively but how many people are doing things from a somatic tools perspective to improve their heart rate variability?
I’m trying to think of a metaphor. It’s like trying to change the effect rather than take cause.
This is the cool thing about somatic tools and any somatic work. When we make an effect in physiology, then it has an effect in the real world because we are creating our reality from the inside out.
What are somatic tools?
Our primary somatic tool is cross-mapping. That’s the one that we use. We know that one of the most powerful ways to help improve heart rate variability is when you’re using tools that consciously move attention back and forth between the hemispheres of the brain, which is one thing, between the left and right hemisphere, and then doing some other specific things as a part of that as well as toggling back and forth consciously between sympathetic and parasympathetic like nervous system. We’re toggling back and forth between those things. We’re helping to improve our hearts’ capacity to become variable with that activity.
You keep saying conscious.
We’re doing it consciously. It’s a method and a process we’re following. We’re following a conscious process that moves our awareness back and forth between our brain hemispheres and alternate autonomic nervous system functions, sympathetic and parasympathetic. That’s been shown to improve heart rate variability.
When we hear about people trying to adopt high-performance strategies, I was listening to a podcast where somebody was saying that they started taking Adderall for high performance. There are things that people do like that from performance. I’m listening to you with the conscious back and forth with the hemisphere. That’s much easier and better for your health. Let’s talk about vagus nerve function with somatic tools.
That’s what we did with somatic tools.
It’s all about heart rate variability.
Cross-mapping, specifically our heart rate variability, is what we want to be able to manage. The vagus nerve around somatic practices is about toning the vagus nerve. It makes the vagus nerve stronger. In somatic tools, we’re talking about the interaction between the vagus nerve function and heart rate variability.
Let’s up the ante and talk about somatic coaching skills.
Let’s go one more level up for somatic coaching skills. A lot of the way that we work at the Somatic Coaching Academy is from the bottom up. We’re helping people to better manage and balance their autonomic nervous system physiology. That’s a lot of what somatic practice and somatic tools do. In general, we have amazing ways of doing this but helping people to regulate their nervous system at that point. When the nervous system is not regulated, it is very difficult to do coaching with people whose nervous system is not regulated.
That’s important for a coach to even know what that means. Here’s the thing. If you don’t know what that looks like when your client’s nervous system is unregulated, you’re not going to be able to do anything with them but you don’t know it. If you know it, then you can do something about it. We could be coaching somebody who’s unregulated and bumping our head against the wall and then we wonder what’s wrong with us.
We won’t realize that someone’s regulated. We’ve talked about that in other shows, webinars, library, and that stuff with what that looks like when someone’s regulated in terms of the evasiveness of answers, difficulty to make eye contact, and all those things
A lot of our students have a conversation with their clients about the window of tolerance. They have that conversation in session one and then they can be on the same page about it.
The nervous system has to be regulated to good coaching and even specifically somatic coaching. somatic coaching skills are about asking very precise questions. Coaching is about asking questions.
It’s like partnering with your client to help them get the information in them.
When someone’s dysregulated, there are parts of their brain function that are not online. They’re offline. We don’t always know it. When it comes to vagus nerve function, let’s talk about the three levels of safety outlined by Stephen Porges in Polyvagal Theory. He said that when a mammal is threatened, the first thing that we do is try to activate social engagement.
You see that in people’s faces, between a voice changes for somebody and the face will change. Someone calls us up on the phone that we talk to regularly and within two words, we can tell something’s wrong because their voice is different. That’s the ventral vagal complex that innovates the voice, throat, face, eyes, and all that stuff. That’s an activator for social help and social engagement.
If social engagement doesn’t come, then the next thing we do is go to fight or flight. If fight or flight doesn’t reduce or help us evade the threat, then we go into the dorsal vagal complex that shuts the whole system down. We know from resilience studies that to create a resilient human, those humans have a higher capacity to maintain social engagement and can stay in social engagement, even when things are difficult.
That means that their brain function has to stay online and that social engagement is associated with a ventral vagal complex. The vagus nerve function is instantly tied in with the capacity to stay socially engaged. The stronger the ventral vagal complex function, the more capacity someone has to stay socially engaged which means the more resilient they are.
Something we hear in leadership all the time is, “Don’t react to a response.” That’s what I’m thinking about when you’re talking about this because truly being able to be like this would be able to respond to somebody.
We talk to our students and people about this. I give them that order. I go, “It goes to the ventral vagal complex, sympathetic nervous system, and dorsal vagal complex. It’s three levels of safety.” They say, “I seem to jump right into fight or flight.” Social engagement is wired that way. It might happen in a millisecond and then it goes right the fight or flight. For some people, you skip right to the dorsal vagal shutdown.
That would be based on how they are conditioned.
This is important because the stronger the ventral vagal function, the more of a window you have of social engagement before you go into fight or flight. People who have a very minimal social engagement window before they go into fight or flight could use it to work on the ventral vagal function because the stronger that is, the more of a space you create to be able to seek social engagement, have social engagement, or be socially engaged as a leader. To have someone come into your office and tell you that there’s a problem going on, as a leader, do you go right to fight-or-flight? How helpful would it be if you had a longer run-up of being able to socially engage with the person bringing the problem? That would make you a better leader.
This is one of the things we work with our students on helping them to become a person who can be with anything that’s brought up in a session. Our students role model this way of being. We can help our clients work towards that way of being. Our students and clients don’t get that way by accident. We use somatic coaching skills. Here at Somatic Coaching Academy, we use somatic coaching skills like visual-led release, pattern deconstruction and reconstruction, cross-mapping skills, and natural law questions or inquiry.
When we ask specific questions, what we do is we begin to turn on certain parts of the brain that are associated directly with social engagement. We start to turn on brain centers associated with moral imperatives like how we are able to assess the situation from a moral perspective, our executive functioning areas, the ability for empathy, and decision making. All those areas of the brain begin to activate and come online when we do these somatic coaching skills.
This is another way to look at vagus nerve function from this direction. We have somatic practices that tone the vagus nerve. We have somatic tools that improve heart rate variability, increase resilience, help someone have a better-regulated nervous system, and help people become happier and more alive in their lives. We go even deeper with somatic coaching skills, which begin to activate specific parts of the brain that enhance strength and social engagement. All of that leads back to improved vagus nerve function.We have somatic tools that improve heart rate variability, increase resilience, and help someone have a better-regulated nervous system to help people become happier and more alive. Click To Tweet
One of the things that is coming to me as you’re talking about is sometimes people ask us how long the courses take here at Somatic Coaching Academy. They want something that’s more like a weekend. This takes time to practice so that we get good at it like any skill. I always encourage people to engage with programs that are a little lengthier because then when you graduate, you’re going to know that you’ve mastered it.
We have time tested when our students graduate and part of it is because it’s a certain length of time. They have the capacity to do these things because they’ve gained the skills. The vagus nerve is very cool. The vagus nerve function is very important. I know you have lots more to say on this topic and we’ll be interested to talk more about the vagus nerve but for now, that’s it. We’ll see you later.