Get this nerve deep inside your body to relax, and your mood will follow

For years, I’ve wondered what’s actually happening inside my body when I meditate. The body, not the brain. There’s tons of research on how meditation makes us think more clearly and with more focus. Just eight weeks of meditation practice has been shown to literally grow the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

But my body somehow transforms inside when I meditate. After 15, 20, 25 minutes of feeling my breath, relaxing tension, and noticing sound, something deep inside relaxes, like an old cat sleeping in a sunny window.

Turns out it’s called the vagus nerve. Meditation actually calms the vagus nerve — and so does having a good time with friends (go figure), exercising, and cold showers (really).

A mentor of mine turned me on to the book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, written by therapist Deb Dana, who is pioneering using research about the vagus nerve in therapy.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far reading the book: The vagus nerve is the body’s longest nerve, running from the brain to organs like the heart and gut. This makes it a big driver of our mental health, influencing things like our breathing and heart rate.

The more tense our vagus nerve, the faster our breathing and heart rate, and the more stressed we feel. Our body shifts into what’s known as “fight or flight” mode — we feel frustrated or worried, angry or anxious. We start losing access to our brain’s prefrontal cortex, which makes it harder to focus.

If we’re really stressed, we freeze up. We shut down, numb out, feel hopeless, dissociate from our body, get depressed. The vagus nerve essentially shuts down our body, leaving only the most basic functions like digestion.

The more relaxed our vagus nerve, the more flexible and relaxed our whole body is. We’re curious, calm, compassionate, open, grounded, playful. Most of all, we feel safe to be vulnerable and authentic with others.

All of this is to say — and this is the point of this post: The brain follows the body more than the other way around. We often think we can think our way out of problems in our lives. This capitalist society overvalues logic, critical thinking, rationality, a certain type of intelligence.

But as psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk says in his book by the same name, “The body keeps the score.”

If my stomach is clenched, shoulders pulled up, or forehead tensed, my body is telling me something. My vagus nerve is telling me: It’s time to slow down, take a few deep breaths, listen to my body, and — if there’s time — meditate.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Subscribe to my weekly email to get posts like this straight to your inbox here.

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