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The vagus nerve and amygdala and the role they play in stress, anxiety and trauma

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, and we are energy beings, pulsing at different electromagnetic frequencies, also influenced by the frequencies around us.  All these fascinating areas I will write about in more detail in later blogs, for now, let’s find out a little more about the incredible vagus nerve and amygdala.

The vagus nerve is a long bundle of motor and sensory fibres 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 centre, the parasympathetic nervous system (or you will hear me talk about the relaxation response) and controls unconscious body functions, as well as everything from keeping our heart rate constant and food digestion to breathing and sweating.

Vagus nerve damage can also be caused by diabetes, alcoholism, upper respiratory viral infections, or having part of the nerve severed accidentally during an operation. Stress can inflame the nerve, along with fatigue and anxiety. 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 ENS is sometimes referred to as the second brain or backup brain cantered in our solar plexus. So, a gut feeling is a very real experience.

The vagus nerve can also be toned and strengthened like a muscle, for example:

1.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.

2. Yoga and Tai Chi— Both 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 (fibres), which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or depression.

3. 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 that 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, comprising 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 repeat patterns are formed. The brain is biased towards 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, through our senses, we experience anything that reminds us of a 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 towards a certain behaviour in the future.

You will have heard me talk about hyper-vigilance, this 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 breath, yoga practice and the support of flower essences 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 it has given a little more insight and understanding into perhaps how and why you react to certain situations.

 

My clinics and classes are great tools to support our health and well being and my 5 week yin yoga therapy programme focuses on toning the vagus nerve, calming amygdalic response, encouraging left and right brain hemisphere processing, epigenetics, archetype exploration and the stories we tell ourselves and more besides. We practice yin yoga, breathing techniques, yoga nidra, self care foot massage and flower remedies.

 

Please don’t hesitate to contact me for further information.