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For most of us, the vagus nerve has taken a beating during the pandemic. “We are social creatures,” says chiropractor and functional-medicine practitioner Navaz Habib, DC, author of Activate Your Vagus Nerve: Unleash Your Body’s Natural Ability to Heal. “The fact that we’ve been afraid to be around other people has been a major stressor.”

Positive social interactions stimulate the vagus nerve, which connects to a network of cranial nerves. Some of those nerve branches are in the face. When you smile or laugh, the vagus gets goosed, which activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

Meanwhile, during the pandemic, many of us have gone days, weeks, and months with limited to no social interaction. “For that reason, the pandemic is being referred to as ‘a collective trauma,’” says physical therapist Mariann Sisco, PT, CST-D.

During the pandemic-related lockdowns, Sisco, who lives alone, went out of her way to say hello to neighbors on the sidewalk or the grocery worker at the checkout line. “I took every opportunity to smile, make eye contact, use their name, and ask how their day was going; these small but intentional moments of making a meaningful social connection got me through.”

Sisco notes how masks — while life-saving — have also made it difficult to recognize familiar safety cues. This can amplify our sense of alarm. “Not being able to see people’s facial expressions, especially their mouths to see if they were smiling or not, [can be] intrinsically stressful for the nervous system.”

Masks also require us to raise our voices to be heard, she adds. “For many people, the very act of talking loudly or even hearing a raised voice directed at them can be stressful.”

And then there’s the biggest stressor of them all: the fear of contagion and being contagious. Many of us have found that no matter how much we may have missed certain experiences (dinner parties, live music, going to the gym), when we finally do these things again, they trigger as much anxiety as delight. Habib emphasizes that this is a nervous-system response, and it can take time to retrain it.

There’s also no point in comparing your timing with others’. Inevitably, some of us will bounce back faster. The capacity for recovery is a big part of stress resilience, and some of us have more or less of it.

“Trauma affects people differently,” says neurologist and functional-medicine practitioner Kenneth Sharlin, MD, MPH. “Our bodies are vessels of information, which we acquire through our experiences in life, some of which comes by way of trauma. What we learn from that trauma and how we react to future situations that remind our brains of that trauma, either consciously or unconsciously, becomes a critical factor that determines how we navigate our world.”

He notes that when the nervous system is deeply dysregulated, patients may present with conditions like postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (lightheadedness when rising from a reclining position), gastroparesis (partial paralysis of the stomach), and chronic fatigue syndrome. “I attribute it not to direct damage to the vagus nerve but adaptive damage.”

According to Stephen Porges, PhD, a pioneer in studying the vagus, the nerve includes an ancient vestige of early humans called the dorsal vagal circuit, which stimulates the freeze response. When people get stuck in dorsal vagal activity, they can withdraw and shut down. Their heartbeat slows, their blood pressure drops, and they might feel dizzy or even faint (vasovagal syncope). Emotionally, they may experience apathy, hopelessness, and an inability to set goals or motivate.

The key to once again navigating social situations is to practice patience and compassion for ourselves and others, says Sisco. “We have to offer our vagus nerve opportunities to relearn what is safe and not safe.” And that will be unique to each of us.

We have more power to support our nervous systems than we realize. “Most people understand the concepts of fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest, but what they don’t understand is that minute by minute their body is prioritizing one over the other,” says functional-medicine practitioner Gregory Plotnikoff, MD. “And you can choose to set the priority.”

This was excerpted from “What Happens in the Vagus” which was published in the March 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Illustration by: James Yang
Catherine Guthrie

Catherine Guthrie is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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