Updated: May 17
There’s a growing body of research around the vagus nerve and its role in nervous system regulation. This is a clinical way of saying it can help counteract the fight, flight, freeze response. Here’s some background info on how trauma impacts the nervous system.
Trauma and the nervous system
Trauma occurs after adverse events that leave a lasting impact on your nervous system. It used to be narrowly defined as events that threatened bodily safety – sexual assault or abuse, combat, violence, physical abuse, near death experiences. However, experiences like neglect, bullying, emotional abuse, social ostracism, experiencing oppression (any of the -isms or -phobias) can also result in chronic nervous system dysregulation. The body builds a habit of responding to stress as a life-or-death threat, needing less intense stimulus to cue that reaction.
One example is the fear a woman may feel walking to her car in a parking lot. On one level, it’s a rational response based on the dangers women face navigating in the world. But when a car door slamming nearby triggers a full on flight response, her nervous system can’t differentiate between real danger and perceived danger. It just reacts.
Thankfully, tapping into the vagus nerve response can provide relief. Over time you can train your body to respond differently to incoming stress, and respond more helpfully when you’re triggered.
Technique 1: Singing or humming
Singing or humming can activate the vagus nerve response, since part of the vagus nerve is anchored in the throat. Chanting, singing loudly, humming, or vocal exercises all work well for this.
Technique 2: Gargling
Similar to number one, gargling activates the vagus nerve through the throat. This one may be more accessible if you’re somewhere you can’t belt out your favorite karaoke tunes. Swallowing and chewing are also options.
Technique 3: Laughter
We’ve all heard “laughter is the best medicine.” Trite, but in this instance, there is some evidence it can be helpful to shift you out of a trauma response. Putting on a favorite comedy show or stand up routine after a particularly triggering incident can help you relax and come back to yourself.
Technique 4: Cold
Exposure to cold water triggers something called the mammalian dive reflex, which slows breathing and bodily processes to help us hold our breath longer underwater. Applying cold water, a can of soda, or a bag of frozen veggies to your throat, face or neck can help activate this response and slow down your breathing and heart rate. I personally love how this one snaps me back into the present and counteracts some of the heat that rises during panic.
Technique 5: Deep Breathing
I’ve talked about the benefits of deep breathing in other posts and the effectiveness is largely due to the vagus nerve. I explain the belly breathing technique here which is a helpful practice to build into your routine (before bed or when you wake up help with consistency). That way, it’s there when you need it. Another technique is something called “square breathing” – 4 counts to inhale, 4 count hold, 4 count exhale, 4 count hold. I prefer to start with “rectangular breathing” so the holds aren’t as long – inhale for a count of 4, hold for 2, exhale for 4, pause for 2. You can experiment with what rhythms work best for you.
It is possible to be aware of danger without viscerally experiencing that danger in the present. Training your relaxation response won’t take away your trauma history, but it can help you be triggered less severely, and to meet your needs when you are triggered. If you want to seek help for your trauma, I’m here. I offer telehealth therapy for residents of Colorado. Shoot me a message to set up a free 20 minute video consultation.