The vagus nerve is actually a group of nerves and is the most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that emanate from the brain. The nerve with its point of origin “wanders” (from the Latin vagus meaning to wander) from the brain into the organs of the neck, chest and abdomen and connects the brainstem to the body. It has two clusters of nerve cell bodies and allows the brain to monitor and receive information about several of the body’s functions. It plays a vital role in our nervous systems, both parasympathetic and sympathetic. The vagus nerve, essentially, is part of a circuit that links the neck, heart, abdomen and lungs to the brain. Our automatic responses, such as digestion, heart rate and breathing are all governed by the healthy functioning of the vagus nerve.
This nerve also holds the potential to affect certain functions and actions of which we are consciously aware and it is this aspect of the vagus nerve that is of great interest to those of us who seek alternative or complementary methods of healing.
The science and study of PNI maintains that not only is there a definite correlation between the psychology and mindset of an individual and their physical body, there is also the possibility of altering the conscious mind and thought processes in order to bring about a beneficial change to health in both the body and the mind.
PNI is demonstrable and easily recognizable for most people. If you were asked whether you feel better eating your lunch inside a concrete building under artificial light or under a tree in a sunlit park, you would have no hesitation in recognizing the difference that your environment makes to your levels of happiness and contentment. The beneficial effects of fresh air and being close to the natural world is known as Biophilia.
It is possible to affect your physiological processes, such as the production of endorphins and other neuropeptides, by altering your thoughts. With practice, this effect can be achieved quite quickly during even the most stressful of situations. It is actually the very method taught by most of the martial arts. The warrior who can successfully control her fear remains calm and centered even in the face of seemingly impossible odds and overwhelming threats.
…the connection between the vagus and the management of fear, through the influence of the gut on the vagus nerve, offers possibilities for self-healing and guided or channeled healing for others through the medium of sound.
So, what is the connection between sound, PNI and the vagus nerve? Firstly we need to look at some of the areas that the vagus affects:
- Breathing: the vagus nerve communicates with the diaphragm. Through the correct form of deep breathing a person is able to bring about a state of relaxation and calm.
- The Gut and Fear management: the vagus nerve delivers information from the gut to the brain. The communication seems to be a two way thing, hence the unwelcome attack of stomach upset such as diarrhea that can accompany a nerve wracking situation.
- Decreasing inflammation
- Lowering heart rate and blood pressure
Stimulation of the Vagus Nerve
Stimulation of the vagus is a medical procedure that is now used to treat Epilepsy and Depression. Medically the stimulation is achieved through electrical impulses or sometimes massage in a targeted and controlled way.
Those of us who are involved in the uses of sound as a healing and therapeutic tool can find much to explore in the possibilities offered by vibrational frequencies in stimulating the vagus nerve. If we consider the connection between the vagus and the diaphragm we can see how beneficial this relationship could be when coupled with a conscious desire to engage in breath work, through meditation, yoga, Qigong or mindfulness.
Likewise, the connection between the vagus and the management of fear, through the influence of the gut on the vagus nerve, offers possibilities for self-healing and guided or channeled healing for others through the medium of sound. The management of stress, stress hormones, anxiety, and depression is essential if we are to begin to build, or rebuild, a strong and healthy immune system. Energy levels can easily become depleted through such conditions as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) to the extent that a person’s quality of life, ability to work, or even to perform the simple task of daily life become severely impaired. This, in turn is bound to have an adverse effect on the individual’s emotional and mental wellbeing.
The warrior who can successfully control her fear remains calm and centered even in the face of seemingly impossible odds and overwhelming threats.
Why Use Sound?
In the case of CFS as described above, a person may well be unable to take any form of exercise, no matter how gentle. This is where the vibrational healing frequencies of instruments such as crystal or bronze singing bowls or gongs can be invaluable.
During a gong bath or singing bowl session the sound waves of the instruments enter our bodies on many levels, not just through the ears. We do not need to move our muscles in order for our muscles’ nerves to be moved, or stimulated. We can continue to relax into the “bath” of sound waves and differing vibrational frequencies as we simply breathe. The possibilities for the stimulation of the vagus, and the connections between this nerve and the diaphragm, the brain, the gut and the entire parasympathetic nervous system are many and varied. As far as our overall health and our immune systems are concerned, the relaxation engendered by the application of sound in this way is profound and deep in ways that may not be achieved using other relaxation methods.
As we have seen, relaxation is key to the process of enabling our bodies to produce the “good” hormones and eliminate the “bad” chemical substances that are detrimental to both mind and bodily health. When we allow the vibrations and resonances of sound to flow through our entire bodies we encourage every muscle group, every organ, every system, some people may say every single cell, to relax. Our flow of life energy is therefore enhanced as the areas of tightness or tension are dissolved.
Self-Healing with Sound
It may be difficult to create the experience of a full gong bath for oneself so in this case it is probably better, and more enjoyable, to find a reputable center or practitioner of gong baths and gong therapy in order to get the most benefit.
However, it is perfectly possible to create a wonderful ambience for healing and meditation through the use of singing bowls, drums, tingsha, wind instruments and a variety of other instruments. You may find yourself drawn to one of the available modalities quite naturally, and you may have an innate gift for producing the sounds with ease. On the other hand, you may need to contact a professional sound healer or practitioner for help and guidance on the best way to use your chosen instrument. It can be quite tricky for some people to produce the sounds from a singing bowl at first and a little tuition could save a lot of frustration, trial and error. Drumming and wind instruments also need to be “played” in a certain way to produce the therapeutic sounds we are seeking in order to achieve the desired state of relaxation and vagus stimulation. Again, contact a practitioner for help and guidance, or treat yourself to a session with a sympathetic healer.
…the relaxation engendered by the application of sound in this way is profound and deep in ways that may not be achieved using other relaxation methods.
The Power of the Voice
Beautiful as objects such as singing bowls can be, they can also be quite expensive to buy. Your voice is free! Singing is a wonderful way to release the healing power of the voice, and if you take part in communal singing events you will already know how powerful the connections formed between individuals can be when they share the music. Singing also exercise the diaphragm, expands the lungs and chest and sets up beneficial vibrations in all parts of the upper body.
Humming is even easier than singing, and its benefits many and varied. Humming increases our bodies’ production of Nitric Oxide, which is a very effective first line defense against infection. Humming also sets up a resonance in the chest, the diaphragm, the lungs and heart which stimulated the flow of Chi or life energy through the meridians of the lung and large intestine, the pericardium and small intestine, the stomach, liver, spleen and pancreas. The post significant effect of humming, when undertaken in a concerted and prolonged way is its ability to balance what is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as “Kidney Fire”. Not surprisingly, this emanates from the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys and an excess of “fire” produces the stress hormone of adrenalin. Bringing all of the systems into balance through the use of different sounds associated with the organs of the body is an important part of the practice of medicinal Qigong. However, that is a whole new area which we may explore in subsequent articles.
For now, rest assured that humming, whether focused and directed consciously as a form of healing, or simply as an outward expression of your inner happiness is one of the simplest effective things you can do towards achieving optimal mind/body health.