Yoga Anatomy: The Vagus Nerve, Amygdala and the Stress Response
The vagus nerve and amygdala are key elements in my work associated with chronic stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and trauma. These aspects of our nervous system connect how we think, feel, and relate to experiences within and around us.
Of course, we are influenced by many internal and external forces—what we eat, where we live, relationships, and our ancestors in terms of our genes and genetics. We are energy beings, pulsing at different electromagnetic frequencies, also influenced by the frequencies around us. All these are fascinating areas to explore, but for now, let’s find out a little more about the incredible vagus nerve and amygdala.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is a long bundle of motor and sensory fibers that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut. It also branches out to touch and interact with the liver, spleen, gallbladder, ureter, female fertility organs, neck, ears, tongue, and kidneys. It powers up our involuntary nerve center, the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system, and controls unconscious body functions, as well as everything from keeping our heart rate constant and helping us digest our food to breathing and sweating.
The vagus nerve can be damaged by diabetes, alcoholism, upper respiratory viral infections, or having part of the nerve severed accidentally during an operation. Stress, fatigue, and anxiety can inflame the nerve. Even something as simple as bad posture can negatively impact the vagus nerve.
The enteric nervous system (ENS), which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, communicates with the central nervous system (the brain) via the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain axis. The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as the second brain or backup brain centered in our solar plexus. So, a gut feeling is a very real experience.
Strengthening the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve can also be toned and strengthened like a muscle, for example:
Massage: You can stimulate your vagus nerve by massaging your feet and your neck along the carotid sinus, located along the carotid arteries on either side of your neck. A back, neck and shoulder massage; or foot massage can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
Yoga and Tai Chi: Both yoga and tai chi increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic system in general. Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by stimulating vagal afferents (fibers), which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression.
Breathing Slowly: Your heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called baroreceptors, which detect blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain. This activates your vagus nerve, which connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out, increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure located within the anterior portion of the temporal lobes. It is a component of the limbic system and known to play a part in controlling emotion, motivation, and memory. It is like a library, storing the emotional perceptions that occur each time a thought enters our brain. In other words, every time we build a memory, we activate emotions, so we feel our body’s reaction to our thoughts. The brain’s job is to predict and control outcomes.
This means that past experiences dictate reactions to current events and form repeat patterns. The brain is biased toward what it knows and will follow the path of least resistance. It is the amygdala that remembers the feelings around each of these chosen paths.
The amygdala activates the fight-or-flight responses with increased heart rate and blood pressure and stimulated release of certain hormones. It provides automatic, rapid, and unconscious reaction to thoughts or events.
The amygdala activates whenever we experience anything through our senses that reminds us of past trauma. Thus, the way to deal with current triggers is to go back to the point of the trauma, access the stored emotion, and release it from the body. The amygdala will no longer feel excess emotion around that event, and it will no longer be a trigger certain behavior in the future.
Hypervigilance is when the amygdala is caught in the loop of perceiving a threat to life and responding to it. As with the vagus nerve, we can use massage, slow breathing, and yoga practice to reset the system.
Clearly, this is but a brief overview of complex systems, capable of more than that which is described here, and interconnected with other organs, glands, and systems in the body. But I hope this has given a little more insight and understanding into perhaps how and why you react to certain situations.
Also from YogaUOnline and Olga Kabel: Vital Vagus: What is the Vagus Nerve and What Does It Do?
Study with Shawnee Thorton Hardy and YogaUOnline – Yoga for Kids with Special Needs: Focus on Autism and ADHD.
Reprinted with permission from Jayne Doyle, The Quiet Way.com
About Jayne Doyle
I have been in practice for over 20 years and now specialize in trauma work, ancestral inheritance, cancer care, and teaching practitioners too. I am developing a stronger online presence in 2019, with subscription-based audio and video content, offering meditations, bite-size wellness classes, yin yoga, Quiet Way training, and more.