I just did a Google search for “vagus baby” and it offered me 558,000 results for the alternative search “vegas baby” instead. “Vegas baby! Vegas!” is a line from the 90s movie “Swingers.” (Ignore this spoiler if you intend to watch “Swingers” – swing dancing is fun, and it takes a while to get over your ex…).
Google does however give you the option of actually viewing the much smaller set of 1,580 results for the search “Vagus baby.” At the risk of you navigating immediately away from this article, and with no offense intended to the cast and crew of “Swingers,” I’d say that this smaller set of search results might have a much more immediately beneficial impact on your life.
I learned about the vagus nerve, and the associated idea of “vagal tone” quite recently while reading the book “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind” by John Coates. I wondered how I’d not run into this information much earlier in my life, especially during the last ten years of teaching and sharing NVC in various ways. I was excited, and my mind, which is extremely prone to the creation of puns, came up immediately with the line from “Swingers” transformed into “Vagus baby! Vagus!” I was apparently not the first to come up with that pun.
Summarizing wildly – it seems that our vagus nerve is very key in determining whether stress moves us into “fight, flight and freeze” mode versus “rest and digest” or “tend and befriend” mode. What’s more, we can actually condition or “tone” the vagus nerve (hence “vagal tone”) so as to increase our capacity to remain in the more relaxed, open and present state under increasingly stressful conditions. No doubt our wisest action is sometimes to fight, flee or freeze, but many of us go there when it would serve us much better to remain in a more relaxed, open and present state.
This brings us to the reason for my excitement… As you might have already experienced, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is taught in a variety of ways. Twelve years ago I first made sense of NVC as being about the 4 components (“observations, feelings, needs, requests”) and 3 skills (“self-empathy, empathy and self-expression”). Later I started to pick up on an associated, and more numerous, collection of skills and principles of human interaction and internal dialogue. In my teaching I quickly started to add the extra “hidden skill” of “pause and breathe into your belly.”
It appeared to me that without this extra skill the other skills of NVC often proved to be difficult to access under stressful circumstances. Pausing and breathing, my reading now tells me, is a fairly reliable way to stimulate my vagus nerve into overriding the movement into “fight, flight and freeze” so that I can remain more open, relaxed, and present. Meanwhile, engaging in practices that involve pausing and deep breathing (singing, chanting, laughing, receiving massage, a variety of creative activities, meditation, yoga, qi gong, tai chi etc.) tone the vagus nerve, so that I develop an overall tendency to remain in a state where NVC skills and awareness remain available to me, even as stress increases.
Communication seems to work much better for me and those around me if I attend to a variety of other needs too
Much of my work involves helping people to navigate through conflict, and to communicate in a way that leads to more giving, more connection and intimacy, more met needs, and more joy. The people I’m helping are usually living fast-paced, stressful lives. They’re certainly engaging in prolonged stressful activities that actually decrease vagal tone, and they’re hoping to soon make more time for the activities that would support vagal tone. Not that anyone says that exactly, but, you know, they say things like “I used to have time to meditate and I miss it” or “I wish I still went to karaoke with my friends, it used to really chill me out.” What’s clear to me, most immediately when I look at my own life, is that communication seems to work much better for me and those around me if I attend to a variety of other needs too. Are you meeting your needs for rest, relaxation, contribution, exercise, touch, space and stillness, for example? Meeting these needs builds vagal tone, which is fantastically important if you want more capacity to communicate effectively using NVC. Improved communication leads to more connection with those around you, which also increases vagal tone, giving you even more capacity to communicate, and on it goes.
You will find many other supplements, activities, practices and therapies if you do a search for “increase vagal tone.” Some of these might attract you more than others, but I think there’s something for everyone.
Vagus baby! Vagus!