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  • NJ Hypnotist James Malone

You've Got Nerve!

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

Recent advances in brain science amend some long-held ideas when it comes to understanding and managing stress. A brief discussion of physiology is needed first as it will help you to appreciate how you can benefit.

The autonomic nervous system (that which operates without conscious control) is divided into two basic branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic system energizes the body to take life-saving action against a perceived threat and is often referred to as fight or flight.

Its opposing counterpart, the parasympathetic branch, was said to down-regulate the fight or flight response into a more relaxed state often called rest and digest.

In the animal kingdom, this system is quite efficient. The animal encounters a physical threat and mounts some type of defense. Afterward, it shifts from the fight or flight response and calms down. With modern humans, most threats are psychological rather than physical and often don't clearly resolve than say an encounter with a predator. We also possess the ability to go into stress response based on what we are thinking or imagining rather than any actual danger. Over time this can cause tangible health problems.

For many years those of us who work with people seeking to reduce the negative physical and emotional effects of stress were taught that it was a matter of devising strategies to help the person move from hyperactivity of the sympathetic system and to more fully engage the parasympathetic. Frequently the techniques involved controlling the breath, progressive muscle relaxation, and other techniques in order to stimulate the vagus nerve. What is the vagus nerve you may well ask?

There are 12 cranial nerves that are rather unique in their function and anatomy as they don’t travel through the spinal cord as all other nerves do. Some such as the optic (sight) or olfactory (smell) go directly from the sense organ to the brain. Others like the vagus nerve, originate in the brain stem.

I was taught years ago that the vagus nerve has a multitude of functions, including the shift from sympathetic nervous activity to parasympathetic. However, this explanation was a bit over-simplistic.

Research by psychologist Dr. Stephen Porges uncovered that the vagus nerve has two distinct branches, the dorsal and the ventral and they serve different functions. (Dorsal in anatomical terms refers to the back of the body, ventral the front.)

The dorsal vagal (DV) branch mediates the third stress response that exists apart from fight or flight that is often overlooked. When an animal cannot fight off or run away from an overwhelming threat, it will often freeze up and become immobile. This evolutionary development arose since predators will often pass on prey that appears dead. Once the threat passes the animal shakes and trembles and then goes back to normal. A familiar example is when an opossum or other woodland creature “plays possum.” DV response is basically fear+hopelessness+immobility whereas fight or flight is fear+movement.

The ventral vagal (VV) branch appears to have come later in our evolution and brings about the desired healing state of rest and digest after experiencing fight or flight or the DV response. Dr. Porges notes that when the VV nerve is functioning well, we experience what he calls social engagement. This is where we feel safe, secure, creative, and connected to other people and the world around us. It is also a state of health and healing. In contrast to the sympathetic and DV states, in VV we experience stillness+serenity.

In this paradigm, in addition to the restless agitation we experience during fight or flight, it is possible for us to get stuck in DV dominant state in response to excessive stress. This would be marked by feelings of low energy, apathy, pessimism, and social withdrawal because we feel unsafe. You may find yourself procrastinating and unable to snap yourself out of it. I suspect that throughout the pandemic, and especially during the 3-month lockdown in 2020, many of us (myself included) were in a place of DV overactivity.

A highly stressed person can also alternate between sympathetic agitation and DV dominance. As an aside, it is also possible to be in a hybrid state of sympathetic and VV activation. We experience this during friendly competition, simultaneously engaged yet calm, or what athletes used to call being in the zone.

To increase our overall wellbeing, it becomes necessary to encourage the body to activate the VV response on a regular basis. Many of the standard practices used by hypnosis practitioners and similar disciplines can and do help with this. In addition, the Basic Exercise designed by acclaimed bodyworker and educator Stanley Rosenberg can work wonders. Inspired by the work of Dr. Porges, Rosenberg developed this technique for those like myself who cannot engage in physical touch with our clients and want an easy-to-learn technique that can be practiced independently, The video below will show you how to do it.

P.S. I highly recommend Stanley Rosenberg's book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. He shares significant insights on how polyvagal theory can enable us to overcome stubborn health challenges, learn more here.

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