Since March 2020 the world in which we live feels like a dangerous place. For some of us, that sense of danger is actually real. For others of us, the sense of danger is more in our nonconscious perception of threat. A sense of safety has disappeared, and you feel anxious all the time. Why? Your body includes the amazing vagas nerve, which runs down through the brain stem to your face, throat, heart, and then downward into your gut. This nerve asks one question: “Am I safe?” Its default mode is “danger is here.” And when our vagas nerve is on high alert we respond automatically, without conscious thought with either frenzied activity (fight), or passive distraction (flight), or a sense of numbness & immobility (freeze & faint) or some combination. Do any of these responses sound familiar to you? To regain your safety footing, we need to work with how God designed our vagas nerve and work with our emotional brain. Consider these five points:
- Just breathe. I constantly return to the importance of your breath to develop a sense of emotional safety, even in the midst of alarming circumstances. Have you ever noticed that you hold your breath when you are startled or tense? Begin to develop a practice of taking deep inhales until the ribcage expands in all 4 directions, and then slowly exhale and feel the body soften. Keep your mind focused on your breathing. You can also pair God’s words of reassurance with your breathing in a way that makes sense to you. Consider meditating on 1 Peter 5:7 as you breathe. Can you take 5 minutes periodically throughout the day to practice deeper breathing?
- Just notice. One part of the vagas nerve, the dorsal vagas nerve, works with your sympathetic nervous system to trigger your fight, flight, freeze response. All of these responses are initiated automatically–your brain is choosing them for you. Practice the following simple exercise to reassure your dorsal vagas nerve and your sympathetic nervous system that you are actually NOT in danger (i.e., there is no saber tooth tiger lurking behind you). Sit quietly, look straight ahead and just notice whatever is going on inside of you and outside of you. Then, using your hips and neck, turn to your right and look behind you, and just notice. Then return to the front view. Look up and just notice. Look down and just notice. Then, using your hips and neck, turn and look to your left and just notice. Then return to center. Compare how you now feel with how you felt when you began. I wouldn’t be surprised if you increased your sense of well-being. What difference did you sense in your body?
- Just move. If you can move with others, even better! The other part of the vagas nerve is the ventral vagas nerve. The ventral vagas nerve works with the parasympathetic nervous system, our “tend and befriend” system. Moving in rhythm with others engages your ventral vagas nerve, and it is even better if you can sing or laugh. You don’t have to be a rock star, or even particularly coordinated. Here is a link to sing and dance to the Hokey Pokey. Can you allow yourself to enjoy the moment by doing something that uses all your body?
- Just sing or hum loudly. Another way to engage the ventral vagas nerve is to sing or hum with gusto. This is not nearly as satisfying when you wear a mask for physical safety from COVID-19. But if you can do so with your family – why not? You can always sing in your car as you drive from point A to point B. When you sing you activate the vagas nerve that goes to your voice, face, and throat. Can you sing a new song unto the Lord?
- Adjust your surroundings. Our dorsal vagas nerve is triggered by sudden loud noises and deep tones. If you are a Star Wars fan, do you remember the music that represented Darth Vadar and the Empire? Now compare that music with Princess Leia’s theme. Our ventral vagas nerve responds to melody, especially if sung sweetly. A melodious voice is helpful to calm an alarmed dorsal vagas nerve. Think aabout how we often talk to babies and puppies, using a higher pitched sing-song voice. Perhaps switching up the music you listen to or recognizing the impact of sudden loud sounds (like a police siren) can help you restore a sense of “felt safety” more quickly. What music speaks to your heart and reassures your body that you are safe?
To learn more, see the following resources:
For more on the vagas nerve, see” A Beginners Guide to the Polyvagal Theory”.
Listen to this Podcast on from the Bible Project: “Praying Through Our Fears”.
Emotional contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Faculty, Asbury Theological Seminary.
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle