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  • Writer's pictureAlina Halonen

How Trauma Impacts the Vagus Nerve and Vagus Nerve Reset

Updated: May 16

By Alina P. Halonen, LPCC, CCTP

May 11,2023


Trauma, whether it stems from a single distressing event or prolonged exposure to overwhelming situations, can significantly impact various aspects of our physical and mental well-being. Among the crucial elements affected by trauma is the vagus nerve, a key component of the autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating our body's stress response.


In this blog, we will explore how trauma impacts the vagus nerve and delve into the concept of vagus nerve reset from the perspective of a trauma specialist, supported by relevant research and references.

Understanding the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is the longest nerve in our body. It originates in the brainstem and branches out to various organs, including the heart, lungs, liver, and digestive tract. It plays a vital role in regulating our autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing.

Impact of Trauma on the Vagus Nerve

Traumatic experiences can have profound effects on the vagus nerve, disrupting its normal functioning. Research suggests that trauma can lead to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, resulting in an imbalance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branches of the nervous system.


Decreased Vagal Tone: Vagal tone refers to the activity level of the vagus nerve. Trauma often leads to a decrease in vagal tone, resulting in a compromised ability to regulate stress responses. Reduced vagal tone is associated with increased susceptibility to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Inflammatory Response: The vagus nerve is involved in regulating the body's inflammatory response. Trauma can dysregulate this process, leading to chronic inflammation and contributing to a range of physical and mental health issues, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and mood disorders.


Hypervigilance and Hyperarousal: Trauma survivors may experience heightened states of hypervigilance and hyperarousal. These states are driven by the sympathetic nervous system, which becomes overactive, while the parasympathetic branch, mediated by the vagus nerve, is suppressed. This imbalance can lead to difficulties in relaxation, disrupted sleep patterns, and persistent feelings of anxiety.


Vagus Nerve Reset Techniques:

Recognizing the impact of trauma on the vagus nerve, trauma specialists employ various techniques to support vagus nerve reset and restore balance to the autonomic nervous system. Here are a few approaches that have shown promise:

Breathing Exercises: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing techniques such as belly breathing or coherent breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic response. These exercises help promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and increase vagal tone.


Meditation and Mindfulness: Practices that cultivate mindfulness, such as meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), have been found to enhance vagal tone and improve emotional regulation. These techniques encourage a present-centered awareness that can counteract the effects of trauma on the vagus nerve.


Yoga and Physical Exercise: Engaging in regular physical exercise, particularly activities that emphasize mind-body connection such as yoga or tai chi, can positively impact the vagus nerve. These practices combine breathwork, movement, and mindfulness, contributing to improved vagal tone and overall well-being.


Trauma-Informed Therapies: Specialized therapeutic approaches, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing (SE), and Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), focus on resolving trauma-related dysregulation in the nervous system. These therapies aim to restore balance and promote vagal tone through targeted interventions.

Trauma significantly impacts the vagus nerve, disrupting its normal functioning and contributing to a range of physical and mental health challenges. However, with the help of trauma-informed specialists and various techniques aimed at vagus nerve reset, individuals can gradually restore balance to their autonomic nervous system. Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and trauma-informed therapies are among the approaches that have shown promise in supporting vagal tone restoration and promoting overall well-being. By understanding the intricate connection between trauma and the vagus nerve, we can embark on a path toward healing and resilience.

References:

Porges, S. W. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. W. W. Norton & Company.


Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. North Atlantic Books.


Klabunde, R. E. (2011). Cardiovascular physiology concepts. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Selye, H. (1976). The stress of life. McGraw-Hill.


Fink, G. (2018). Stress: Concepts, cognition, emotion, and behavior. Academic Press.


Koch, S. B., & van Zuiden, M. (2018). Emotion regulation and the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 9(sup2), 1419742.


Koopman, F. A., Chavan, S. S., Miljko, S., Grazio, S., Sokolovic, S., Schuurman, P. R., ... & van der Poll, T. (2016). Vagus nerve stimulation inhibits cytokine production and attenuates disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(29), 8284-8289.

© Alina P. Halonen, LPCC, CCTP 2023. All Rights Reserved.


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