E040 - Vagus & Voice: The Ultimate Positive Feedback LoopNov 30, 2020
VAGUS & VOICE
"When I hold you in my arms
And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm.."
In the interests of healing, I think Lennon's next line goes too far in comparing fundamental well-being to a heated up firearm. But the legendary Beatle's insight above is nonetheless profound. Whether he meant to or not, I'm gonna put words in John's mouth and say he had, in his sights, the human instinct for moving from a dysregulated to a regulated state.
We all get anxious, angry, activated, or shut down. This is life on planet earth, right? But what if we could learn to bounce back from it? What if within the raw material of psychic dissonance there was a superpower?
Triggers are opportunities.
To have a confident voice, we first need to feel safe in the world. Paradoxically, though, our safety is contingent on getting intimate with our dangerous parts.
And by that I don't mean flouting a rule. No, dysregulation's what happens neuro-physiologically when we’re angry, sad, anxious, or generally out of sorts. We all know what it feels like. Anxiety gnawing away in the pit of your stomach. Rage filling your mind with angry thoughts and rallying your body to war. Often followed hard upon by depression, numbness, or paralysis.
TIGER TIGER BURNING BRIGHT
Now, when facing a genuine threat, what we've come to understand as anxiety and rage are adaptive nervous system states designed to ensure our survival. Just yesterday, these two emotional imposters proved useful to me in pre-empting the attack of our local saber-toothed tiger. I jest, but you get the drift: adrenal responses have a use.
The point is, we can regularly feel enraged or strung out in the extreme even when our quotidien sojourns are generally apex predator free. And then we’ve become dysregulated. Persistent dysregulation is not a fun way to live. It also compromises your voice – if our voices are consistently dysregulated, we're more prone to lashing out or clamping up. Raging against or attacking the ones you love; freezing at the very moment you need to speak up. It's a vicious cycle with measurable effects.
Life patterns, for example – where you leave difficult situations rather than speak up for yourself and express your boundaries – can be attributed to unchecked dysregulation. This is to be trapped in a negative feedback loop in which dysregulation triggers vocal issues, which – in turn – trigger more dysregulation. Our life takes a turn for the worst. The good news is, there’s a cure!
THE MAGIC SWITCH
It really is within your power to turn a negative feedback loop into a positive one. Makes sense doesn’t it?
Gotta know there’s a switch before you can flip it!
And the switch – friends – is regulation. Dysregulation: regulation. Simply put, to regulate is to consistently and consciously practise getting unfrozen, or interrupting the mad pendulum of your wrecking ball rage.
The following practices open the gateway to the yummy, safe, home-like dimension which is the miracle of your nervous system: humming (something I do every morning and when I feel stress); chanting, singing mantras or – better still – group singing. All of these practices will create a positive feedback loop.
THE SOUL NERVE
To be clear – you can and should manage your nervous system state. You don’t have to be a victim of it. But what's actually going on in the body when we regulate? The master key to regulation is something called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is your new best friend. But what is it?
The vagus descends out of the brain stem to the voice – where it regulates communication – but it also goes down through your heart, lungs and into the organs of the belly.
What's amazing is that you can tone the vagus! Isn’t that cool? Indeed, a “well toned vagus” is the key to feeling grounded, happy and safe in the world. Technically, it’s called a ventral vagal state. How do you know you’re in a ventral vagal state? You feel grounded, present, open, curious, compassionate, mindful, and peaceful. Even joyful. When you regulate with the above practices, you enter this exquisite space. From here, the voice heals organically.
Other techniques to improve vagal tone include exercise, meditation, breathwork, bodywork and massage. Even cold exposure. So, whenever you get triggered – do these practices to cultivate resilience. They’ll help you bounce back faster and access the discipline and confidence of “coming home” and optimising your nervous system.
Of course, the long-term work includes dealing with what is triggering us in the first place. Especially where we’re carrying developmental wounding, trauma, or negative conditioning that keeps coming up to take us down! For this we need deeper healing, which might include therapy, trauma techniques, bodywork or energy medicine. I’m a huge fan of TRE® and EFT / Tapping.
LEVELLING UP TO SUPERPOWER STATUS
The journey towards fundamental vocal well-being doesn’t end at regulation. For lift off, you will ultimately want to bring that ventral vagal state into community as your confidence grows. Renowned Behavioral Neuroscientist Stephen Porges describes this state as “social engagement”, a playful mixture of activation (“excited to see you”) and calming (“grounded and in myself”). Co-regulation happens in the eyes, ears, larynx, and mouth; but, it also involves the entire face and the torso above the diaphragm (your voice is a huge component). You could call it a symphony: all twelve cranial nerves participate in the action here.
From this symphonic state of co-regulation, we stop hiding, and we can share our gifts with the world.
This is truly coming home. The markers of co-regualtion are connectedness and compassion, but don't be surprised if it triggers euphoria.
Friends, we really can learn to use tools of resilience – humming, singing and more – to regulate for greater wellbeing. If to regulate is the better part of being human, to venture into co-regulation with other human beings is being divine.
Social engagement and connection in a ventral vagal state is the most altruistic articulation of your humanity in this short life.