One of the most helpful pieces of knowledge I have learned so far in my career was from a gentleman named Eric Gentry. He is a licensed psychotherapist and a PhD of Psychology. He specializes in working with people who have experienced trauma among many other things. He presented at a seminar I attended several years ago and opened my eyes to the wonderful world of the Vagus Nerve. No, not Vegas as in dancers and sunshine and party time. Vagus as in, one of the most important parts of our body that can either make us feel really good or make us feel really bad. Imagine this beauty running close to parallel to the spine, from the base of your skull down down down to your tailbone. Believe me, you want to be BFF's with your Vagus nerve because it can help you calm your body, regulate your emotions and aid in your digestive system. Are you feeling anxious right now? That's because your body is holding very tight all around your Vagus nerve. It probably feels uncomfortable, right???
When we hold tight to the vagus nerve our autonomic nervous system is immediately placed into a sympathetic response. By now you may or may not know that this is the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. It does not always have to feel that intense but it is uncomfortable and does not help our body feel great. I also must say that this is a very oversimplified way of explaining this to you. As a therapist, I tend to oversimplify A LOT. So lets keep going.
Often times our body will hold tight without us even knowing that it is happening. We may realize it when we find ourselves getting stressed , irritable, feeling a headache coming on, feeling very tired or experiencing pain in our stomach. At that point, you may notice tightness in the body but for some, you may never realize you are holding tight until you meet a therapist who says "let's work on allowing your body to relax" AND THIS IS POWERFUL! This is when we can shift our body from the sympathetic response to the parasympathetic response, deep healing mode. And totally under our control. Wow!
Do you want to know how? It's all about shifting the body from constricting the Vagus nerve, to taking constriction OFF of the Vagus nerve. How do we do that? I will tell you (Thank you Eric Gentry, PhD).
Let's do this together. I would like you to take a deep breath and notice what part of your body moves when you do this. GO!
Did you notice your chest expanding? This is normal and what I typically see. Now try again, this time I want you to bring all that movement from your chest down, deep into the low belly. Expand that belly like you would expand a balloon. Exaggerate it, like really push it out. Notice what that feels like. Very different isn't it? Take a few more of those breaths and let the breath move in and out very slowly ... just notice what begins to happen. Now, on your exhale, I want you to imagine your belly and all the muscles deep deep inside your low belly, SOFTENING ... like melting away with each slow exhale. This is you taking constriction OFF of the vagus nerve. Isn't it marvelous? Exhale, soften and pause, allowing any more softness to come into the body. I think you've got it. It's ok if it's not perfect. My goodness, this is your first time and no one expects you to be perfect at it right away. I will tell you, though, if you practice this, you will become so good at it that you can teach other people and then they can teach other people and pretty soon we will have a whole world of people walking around the world showing off their parasympathetic response. Imagine that, John Lennon!
This is one of many ways to train your body to begin to soften so that the sweet Vagus nerve can help you relax and heal.
Come back for more and eventually I will tell you how I utilize this exercise to help people begin to heal from past trauma. Crazy and wonderful stuff! I also have an audio file, about 16 minutes long, that will help guide you through this particular exercise. You can find it here .
Thanks for reading!
Jennifer Barber, LICSW
Psychotherapist in Vancouver Washington
Certified Trauma Specialist
By Jennifer Barber, LICSW 2-20-2021