Let's Talk Nerdy: the neuroscience behind mental health

Trauma can have significant physical effects on the brain, particularly by dysregulating the functioning of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The ANS, composed of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, is responsible for regulating bodily functions related to stress and relaxation, while the HPA axis is involved in the body's response to stressors.

The vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve or the wandering nerve, is a crucial component of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. It is responsible for regulating many bodily functions including heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. The vagus nerve plays a significant role in the body's "rest-and-digest" response, promoting relaxation and recovery after a stressful event. 


Trauma can impact the functioning of the vagus nerve (and thus the ANS) in several ways:

Hyperarousal: Traumatic experiences can lead to an overactivation of the sympathetic branch of the ANS, which is responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response. This can result in increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, hypervigilance, and a constant state of high alertness.

Hypoarousal: On the other hand, trauma can also lead to a dysregulation of the vagus nerve, resulting in a decreased parasympathetic response. This can lead to symptoms of dissociation, emotional numbing, reduced heart rate, and decreased blood pressure.


Reduced Heart Rate Variability (HRV): HRV refers to the variation in the interval between heartbeats and is an indicator of overall autonomic health. Trauma can reduce HRV, reflecting a lack of flexibility and adaptability in the ANS, which can have detrimental effects on physiological and psychological well-being.

Inflammatory Responses: Trauma can also affect the immune system by activating inflammatory responses in the body. The vagus nerve plays a key role in modulating inflammation through its anti-inflammatory effects. Dysregulation of the vagus nerve can lead to increased inflammation, which has been associated with various physical and mental health problems.

Overall, trauma can physically impact the brain by dysregulating the functioning of the ANS, including the vagus nerve, which is crucial for maintaining a healthy stress response and overall physiological well-being.

Often our addictions spring from the need to calm our system’s reactions. Think about drinking at a party to feel more comfortable. Sound familiar? As for me, I’ve been told by my neurologist and neurosurgeon that my brain no longer has breaks. So whatever direction it starts off on, I’m on that ride until it’s done.

Anxiety is an interesting thing for the brain. Anxiety can be from a good, happy, excited feeling and then of course it can come from worry. What does this mean? Well, for me, I was told I have social anxiety disorder and given some sedatives. While that was a solution for a minute, as I went further along my healing journey, I found that I can tell my brain what I want to feel sometimes. Like if i’m about to walk in to a party, I think of all the things I can that I’m excited about and I try to stay in that vibration. I know that when I start to feel overwhelmed or stressed, that excitement is going to show up as stress almost instantly. One brilliant hack I have for this is to smile. Just smile. Freely, openly, unapologetically. My brain then says, oh look, we’re happy! And happy gears start to turn in there.

Several activities and practices can help to calm the vagus system, which is responsible for regulating the body's stress response and promoting relaxation. These activities include:

Deep breathing: Slow, diaphragmatic breathing activates the vagus nerve and activates the body's relaxation response.

Meditation and mindfulness: Practices like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can help calm the vagus system by reducing stress and promoting relaxation.

Cold exposure: Cold showers or immersing your face in cold water can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.

Exercise: Regular physical activity can help regulate the vagus system and improve overall well-being. However, excessive or intense exercise may have the opposite effect.

Social connections: Building meaningful relationships and engaging in social interactions can have a calming effect on the vagus system.

Massage and bodywork: Techniques like massage or acupuncture can provide relaxation and stimulate the vagus nerve.

On the other hand, various factors can negatively impact the vagus system, leading to an imbalance and reduced relaxation response. These unhealthy factors include...

Stress: Chronic stress can dysregulate the vagus system, leading to elevated stress levels and reduced relaxation response.

Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity can contribute to vagus system imbalances, as regular exercise is essential for its proper functioning.

Poor sleep: Inadequate or poor-quality sleep can disrupt the vagus system, leading to increased stress and reduced relaxation response.

Unhealthy diet: Consuming a diet high in processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats can negatively impact the vagus system. A diet rich in whole foods, vegetables, and lean proteins is generally beneficial.

Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption: Overconsumption of caffeine or alcohol can negatively affect the vagus system, causing imbalances and reduced relaxation response.

It's worth noting that individual responses may vary, and what may calm the vagus system for one person may not have the same effect on another. It is essential to listen to your body and find what works best for you. If you have specific concerns regarding your vagus system or overall well-being, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional.


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