The vagus nerve is an important, but rarely discussed, part of our periphery nervous system that controls and monitors all our vital organs – heartrate, respiration, digestion, etc. This is the epicenter of the body-brain connection.
You can see a picture of it here, represented in yellow. Similar in size to the spinal cord, it starts in the brainstem, wraps around the sides of the neck, and the spreads into all the organs.
Not only does it control our organ function, the vagus nerve also manages our hormone production, our immune system, and our entire autonomic nervous system. It is responsible for our sympathetic and parasympathetic states. Think our stress or no-stress responses. Fight or flight and rest and digest.
The most amazing thing about it is that it’s 80% afferent; meaning that 80% of the information our brain uses to assess if we’re safe or not comes FROM the body, not from the brain.
What happens physiologically in the body, such as gut and heart sensations, changes the brain and influences how we feel, respond, think, and behave.
Every experience we have encodes itself into us via the vagus nerve. This is a survival mechanism from hundreds of thousands of years ago that allows us to predict what might happen in the future based on past experiences. For example: there was a lion at the watering hole yesterday, be wary.
In modern times, that “experience” can be anything from a certain tone of voice from our partner to an ambiguous email from our boss, causing us to worry about something bad happening. We activate a stress response completely based on the past.
Being in states of chronic stress, even if low intensity, can greatly dysregulate the vagus nerve, causing our stress response system to kick-on unnecessarily (think road rage), leading to consistent states of anxiety. Or it doesn’t kick-on at all (burnout) which can lead to depression. This is a dysregulated nervous system.
And it doesn't just impact our mental health. A dysregulated nervous system can lead to hormonal issues, autoimmune issues, gut health issues, and an overactive or depressed immune system.
Our vagus nerve stores each stress response we have, and unless we consistently and intentionally recover from stress, it builds in our system. This then shrinks our capacity for resilience to any stressor, and interferes with peak cognitive performance.
What happens in our vagus nerve stays there. But by making it conscious, we can directly control our stress and arousal responses, instead of our stress and arousal responses controlling us. This is how I help.
P.S. My mom is the creative genius behind “what happens in vagus, stays in vagus”. Thanks mom :)
Cheers to better living -