Tapping the Healing Rhythms of the Vagus Nerve

April 14, 2020

When friends call or text to ask how I am doing these days, I often say, “just trying to stay in a good rhythm.” Social isolation, physical distancing, and an unpredictable future have challenged everything, including the familiar cadence of work and relationships. Anything that disrupts safety, impacts relationships, and changes previous routines results in a sense of not being able to find one’s “beat.”

Rhythm plays an extraordinary role in our lives because if our bodies cannot generate the most fundamental rhythm of life—the heartbeat—we cannot survive. Our heart rate must increase to initiate fight or flight and it must maintain its rhythmic pulse despite any demands placed on it. Regulating heart rate during stress and controlling stress hormones are two critical tasks that require that the brain and body keep proper time.

The regulation of the body’s internal rhythms can be best understood through the lens of polyvagal theory (Porges, 2011). In particular, the ventral vagal network that runs from the diaphragm to the brain stem is key because it can be influenced by breathing patterns and social cues such as smiling and making eye contact to generate a sense of calm and safety. Experiences that generate sounds such as gargling, humming, prosody, and specific vocalizations can also be self-regulatory. These practices can help us find ways to “rest and digest” when hyperactivation or dissociation overtake brain and body.

Rhythm is a core foundation of expressive arts therapy, especially when introduced to help individuals regulate and stabilize (Malchiodi, 2020). One concept that is relevant to supporting “good rhythms” is found in entrainment. Entrainment is also called rhythmic synchronization and is an expressive arts approach that can support self-regulation, co-regulation, and shared regulation.

This synchronization occurs when the rhythm of one experience actually synchronizes with the rhythm of another. For example, babies hear their first rhythm in utero while listening to their mothers’ heartbeats; the natural way to calm infants is to sway, rock, or pat them to the rhythm of a resting heart rate.

Motor and brain activity can also fall into synchronous rhythms through the therapist’s voice and through sensory experiences that match a resting heart rate (60 to 80 beats a minute), slow it down, or speed it up and energize individuals.

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