A Safe(r) Space for the Body (Vagus Nerve Practices)

image by @jakegivens

How do we create a container for the body that offers care and a felt sense of safety and being held?

There’s a part of the body called the vagus nerve which is a cranial nerve whose impact is felt through much of the body. It innervates the muscles of the throat, lungs, heart, digestive organs, and kidneys and helps supports a variety of bodily functions that allow us to be in a state of balance. The nerve is said to be most dominant in our gut area and a source for our gut wisdom.

The vagus nerve is central to our ability to relax, our ability to act in life-threatening situations, and our ability to experience a felt sense of love, fear, grief, loneliness, belonging, hope, empathy, and connectedness.

The vagus nerve connects to our brainstem or lizard brain whose primary function is to detect survival including our ability to detect when we are hungry and thirsty as well as our ability to detect when danger is present and engage in protective responses such as fight, flight, and freeze.

Some of us based on our personal and intergenerational histories can have a protective response that can become hyper stimulated and have difficulty differentiating between states of safety and danger which can cause us to have a prolonged stress response and increased difficulty engaging in states of relaxation.

Engaging in vagus nerve exercises can support an increased container in the body for relaxation and can help the body relearn how to settle and ground.

When we engage in a state of relaxation or ease, the vagus nerve then sends a message to our lizard brain that it’s okay, we can relax and settle that we can then experience as a form of softening and soothing that is received through much of the body.

If we engage in this practice regularly for a few minutes each day, the body can become held and bathed in the vagus nerve messages of safety and belonging and develop greater capacity for self-soothing and for returning to these states more frequently.

I have offered a video below to explore a few simple vagus nerve exercises including swaying, rocking, humming, tactile contact, and belly breathing. Practices like this can be done a few minutes each day to support increased space for grounding and care for the body and nervous system.

Reflections to explore along with watching the video include:

Are you able to easily distinguish when your body is in a state of relaxation and when your body is in a state of activation or collapse?

What helps allow for your body to settle? What sparks the message from the vagus nerve to the lizard brain: it’s okay, you can soften and relax now.

Can you create a few minutes a couple of times per day to check in with the body and notice what state the body is in and offer any care that is needed?

—Lissa E.

This post is inspired by reflections offered in the book My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem on the vagus nerve.

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