Enough of the video gaming! Stop asking me what I am doing all the time! Could you please help more with the kids! No I don’t want to watch another TV show! 

We’re quarreling and becoming a bit on edge. All this confinement and isolation is getting to us. But are we aware of what is happening with our biology? Do we know how our nervous system is reacting to all this stress? And can we use our understanding of biology to calm us down?

The answer is, Yes. Something  called Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges, Ph.D explains how three different parts of our nervous system are involved in our response to stress. Understanding how this works may help you regulate stress in your body.

The first thing to know is that your nervous system is always on-line. It works with the brain and impacts your emotional experiences. You have a  sympathetic nervous system which involves fight and  flight responses in the body. Think of it like a gas pedal for driving a car. When used, it keeps you alert and energized. This system helps you take action when you experience a threat  When activated, your heart rate and breathing speed up, muscles tense and more. Your attention goes to the threat. Stress hormones are released.

Your parasympathetic nervous system  involves relaxation responses and is the brake that helps you rest, digest and repair. The parasympathetic nervous system originates in the brain and includes the cranial nerves. The 10th cranial nerve is called the Vagus nerve. It connects from the brain through all major systems in the body: the stomach and gut, heart, lungs, throat, and facial muscles. It is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system and mediates actions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. This nerve complex really presses the brake on the sympathetic nervous system. It contains an older circuit called the dorsal vagal complex and a more evolved system called the ventral vagal complex or what is known as the social nervous system.

In terms of stress, our social connections are involved. When you interact with people, you constantly decide if they are dangerous or if you feel safe. The social engagement system (the ventral vagus nerve pathway) reads the cues –body movement, facial expressions, eye contact, voice tone and more. This read either calms us or we feel activated. If we don’t feel safe, our social engagement system goes off-line or is unable to regulate and the sympathetic nervous system takes over. Stress hormones pump out and we are in fight or flight. If the sympathetic nervous system becomes overwhelmed, we go into the freeze mode. The dorsal vagus nerve system kicks in and we shut down. So, when stressed, think, am I  calm, in fight or flight or shut down?

Fortunately, we can learn to indirectly regulate our vagus nerve and move out of shut down or fight or flight. Here are 4 ways to do so:

  1. Do breathing exercises. Take a long deep exhale! When you slow your breathing from the average of 10-14 breathes per minute to 5-7, you stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the calm.
  2. Splash your face with cold water. When you put cold water on your face or take a cold shower, the sympathetic system (fight or flight) deactivates and the parasympathetic system (rest) kicks in. Both breathing and the cold stimulate the vagus nerve.
  3. Connect with someone you trust. You can also stimulate the ventral vagus nerve through social connection. Smiling, eye contact, a warm hug and positive social cues activate the ventral vagus nerve and help calm you down. The more connected you feel, the better you cope. When we feel safe and can trust others, we stay calmer. A sense of connection moves us from fight or flight to calm.
  4. Engage in physical movement. Rubs your hands, take a walk, dance or shake your hands to shake off the stress. Movement engages your social engagement network.


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