BLOGS

Relax the Vagus Nerve and enjoy the Parasympathetic Nervous System

(Video Transcript)

Hi this is Jennifer Barber, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and this is a relaxation exercise that I like to teach my highly anxious and sometimes just anxious clients in private practice.

So we always start by teaching how to breathe deeply and slowly using the lower part of the belly so diaphragmatic breathing is what this is called and i'm going to ask you to put your hands on your very low belly. This is not your core, it's much lower than your core close your eyes and begin to take some deep breaths expanding the low belly like a balloon.

We want to try to take these breaths just using the low belly taking all the chest breathing away chest breathing is typically anxious breathing so we want to bring the breath down from the chest to the low belly. If you're expanding your belly you're going to feel your hands moving in and out.

i'm going to talk a little bit about the vagus nerve this is a really important part of our internal ability to regulate our emotions our vagus nerve runs parallel from the base of your skull down your spine your spine tails off toward the back. So down at the bottom you've got your tailbone
the vagus nerve tails off toward the inside of your low belly.

The vagus nerve is important because when we are anxious and scared stressed out, we tend to hold very tightly to the vagus nerve. We constrict it and when we constrict the vagus nerve, we pop ourselves into the sympathetic nervous system fight or flight and freeze mode.

When we take the constriction away from the vagus nerve, we are in a deep healing mode that's the parasympathetic nervous system our digestion works properly our field of vision expands.

We find our words more clearly. Our heart rate slows. The breath slows deep healing mode so the point of this exercise is to learn how to take the constriction away from the vagus nerve and place us directly into that deep healing parasympathetic mode.

That's why it's important for us to always start with the belly breathing because it makes us stop and pay attention to what's happening inside of our body. It puts us in direct control of where our breath is coming from and going to puts us in control of how deeply we breathe and how slow we breathe expanding the low belly on the inhale and relaxing the low belly on the exhale.

so this exercise is a two-parter. The first part i'm going to guide us through aligning the spine and really becoming aware of what's going on inside of our body. The term for this is called
interoception. We are a perceiving internally what's happening in our body, so i'm going to guide us through stacking the spine and finding the perfect balance.

Tour perfect balance your perfect balance is different than my perfect balance we're finding that for ourselves. Then the second part I will guide you to begin to release constriction on your vagus nerve deep and low in the belly just up from the sit bones and just behind the hip bones that gives you a better idea of where that area is that I'm talking about.
So I want you to find a place to sit where you are pretty much at a 90 degree
angle. You might stack some pillows behind you. If you're sitting on a chair or on the
couch or against the wall something that you can relax into so more like a relaxed 90 degree angle and if you want to be in an upright 90 that's fine too.

So we're going to start by establishing a strong steady foundation. I want you to begin to move your hips like a hula dancer from side to side front and back just to see how much movement where there really is there. Then I want you to settle on a position that feels really strong and
steady to you. That's your base and then we're going to move up from there little by little intentionally stacking the spine to find a really good balance for your body.

So I want you to adjust your low back, your middle back between your shoulder blades,
your neck and your throat the head on top maybe the whole head moves forward or back
maybe the chin comes up or down. Find that stacking that balance and on your next exhale I want you to begin to settle into that shape and sometimes what we need to do is go back down to the base and this time we're going to do that whole thing again. This time making micro adjustments. So adjust the base your hips, small adjustment to the low back, the middle back between the shoulder blades, the neck and throat the head next exhale settle a little more heavily into that stack for the next few breaths on your own.

Continue to go back down to the base, make any micro adjustments all up the spine that you need to in order to find that perfect balance for you and settle on the exhales.

On your next exhale I want you to imagine all of your muscles floating down to the floor. Just leaving your spine intact, the structure remains. Just notice how that feels for a moment.

The breath is slow, the body is soft. Now I want you to imagine the base of your skull right where the spine begins also the top of the vagus nerve.

I want you to follow the spine all the way down your back. All the way down to the tailbone and just imagine now moving forward into the belly two or three inches up from the sit bones back behind the hip bones, bladder area, just imagine that space and on your next exhale I want you to begin to release tension release the muscles in that low belly area.

Exhale. Soften a little bit more. Exhale. Soften. Your attention always is drawn back on that exhale to a soft low belly. You might feel your lower back needing to adjust a little bit. You might feel your hips adjusting a little bit. Let everything soften and let that breath slow. See if there's any more softness that can come to the low belly.

It might feel like an opening. It might feel like a melting. It's been described as a lotus flower
beginning to soften its petals and open with each exhale. Opening a little more, allowing your belly to soften and the breath to slow. Sometimes if this is the first time you've ever allowed your body to really let go of the vagus nerve. Sometimes the body isn't used to it and so as soon as our concentration goes away, the body tightens again and that's okay.
I just want you to notice what it's doing and on your next exhale, allow it to soften many times. When i'm doing this exercise with clients, once they take constriction off of the vagus nerve and they place their body into the parasympathetic nervous system like we're doing now, the belly will start to wake up. You'll hear growling and air moving and the digestion beginning to work the way it's supposed to work. In the daytime in a relaxed body, this is good and so if you're hearing
that that's a sign, that you're doing a really good job with this exercise.

Exhale. Soften the belly. When we allow ourselves to be in the parasympathetic nervous system, that deep muscle relaxation we are now able to hear any signals that our body gives us.

We're paying attention to what's going on inside and so we may notice hunger, we may notice thirst, we may notice pain, tiredness. These are signals that our body sends us all of the time but if we're holding tight, we're not noticing these signals and so our body then sends us signals a little stronger, right stronger hunger pains or maybe a migraine will set in or really bad shoulder and neck pain that we weren't paying attention to before.

In a relaxed muscle body when we check in and allow the body to relax, we're able to notice right away oh there's hunger there, there's something I can do about that.

Feed yourself. Oh there's pain. There's something we can do. We can massage, we can stretch.
Maybe we need to take some tylenol. Maybe our body gives us a signal that we have a sore throat or we're thirsty.

If we pay attention to it, there's things we can do before it gets out of control.

As i've been talking notice, if that soft belly has tightened and on your next exhale, soften.

This exercise was taught to me by a gentleman who works in trauma his name is Eric
Gentry. He himself has struggled with trauma and anxiety. In order to teach this to other professionals, he has had to master it and when he taught this to us, he himself said he practices this every day multiple times a day. That ability to exhale, soften your belly that's the crux of it. Exhale soften, can happen once every minute to show your body that oh whatever we're in right now, whatever environment, we can approach it within a relaxed muscle body.

So practice and I hope this brings you some relaxation today.

Thank you bye-bye.

By Jennifer Barber, LICSW 3-20-2021