There was a large series about relaxation and resilience on the psychologytoday blog. In a spirit quite similar to our blog, the relevant activities are called “training” and the organ being trained is neurologically defined as “vagus nerve”. I link all of it here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10, part 11, part 12 and part 13.
Change and commitment
Success can be slow and can be fast. It is nice to succeed faster, yet it is much more important to avoid failure. What is the most common issue causing people to quit a training and decide not to learn new things? After teaching thousands upon thousands of student, I think the main cause of failure is psychological. People who approach me are typically very smart, highly motivated and mostly very disciplined. The initial steps, even though they are hard and many people contact me for support, do not stop people. Most people are successful in defining goals, finding training tools, allocating scheduled training time and succeeding in the initial exercises. And then something happens.
There are many changes in our lives. Someone can get sick, or die. We may get in love or have a child. There may be some emergency at work, and we may work harder or lose our job or take a new position. A friend or a relative may visit, we may start a new project or we may decide we need to invest more in a project we are already invested in. And then there are vacations which we all take. Each of these small and big challenges and decisions changes our lives. Something that used to be important becomes less important. Either because of true prioritization or because we get tired or busy or otherwise unavailable – we cannot proceed with our commitments.
Is there a procedure, a training or a discipline that can allow us to prevail with our commitments despite the life changes? Arguably resilience training is supposed to be just the right remedy.
There is no good commonly available guide (correct me here) of what to do when we need to stay committed. So people make mistakes:
- Pouring resources. The most natural behavior of failing commitment in consumerist culture is pouring resources: time and money. If we have an argument with a person we love, we buy a gift. If we cannot commit to cooking or sports, we buy equipment. Occasionally we will hire a coach. Sometimes we will generate a situation, when we constantly available for the issue in question, hoping that our availability will allow us to take a positive action. This pattern can work, but it is extremely wasteful with respect to the resources we have.
- Hindsight justification. We may take an action first, prioritizing other activities above a given commitment. Then we will find justifications: emotional, intellectual, speculative or otherwise. We are very good in creating justifications for our failures. Usually, this is a good thing, since we all fail from time to time. This pattern backfires when we create justifications to avoid something we actually should be doing.
- Personalization. It may be nice to have a person associated with our commitment. Then we can negotiate, ask for forgiveness or understanding, use emotional manipulations or try bullying. We can win or lose a conflict with another person, but what effect does it have on our lives? If we are forgiven for doing whatever we want, we still did not complete the task we wanted to complete.
- Procrastination. Taking decisions is hard, delaying decisions is easier. Sometimes any decision is better than indecision. These situations are rare. Usually, the penalty for indecision is relatively small, and with time the things we do not deal with tend to fade away. Personally, I think that a short procrastination may be wonderful since it allows us to come with more complex and creative solutions. A very long procrastination is equivalent to a negative decision with added psychological pressure, so it may be better to simplify things.
Our mistakes often come from survival instincts: apathy, fight-or-flight response, confrontational life stance. A highly trained person would probably use a more effective approach of getting all the supporting information, making an educated choice and organizing the life accordingly to this choice. By training “vagus nerve” we may be developing the tools for such disciplined approach.
The vagus nerve is responsible for such varied tasks as heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and quite a few muscle movements in the mouth, including speech. Vagus nerve is an evolutionary device to control our flight-or-fight response and ensure our survival in life and death situations. As such, it is responsible for a myriad of bodily functions in complex and awesome ways.
The overstimulated vagus nerve is associated with epilepsy and understimulated vagus nerve is associated with apathy. When we train emotional balance, including resilience and relaxation, we stimulate our vagus nerve. Probably we do some other things too. We do know that it is possible to stimulate vagus nerve directly by electric impulses, with interesting effects. You are welcome to read here, here, and here. If this looks like a cure for too many diseases, it is because the mind and the body are connected through very few interfaces and vagus nerve is one of such connections.
Fortunately, something so central as vagus nerve can be easily stimulated. This small diagram shows three states of vagus nerve: fight or flight over-stimulation, hunger, and depression under-stimulation and healthy social engagement stimulation level. We want to keep the vagus nerve is a healthy state, so we increase the amount of social engagement and mindful self-engagement.
The same activities that apply for vagus nerve stimulation, also apply for mindfulness, resilience and happiness training. So instead of optimizing each of these blessings, we may focus on the factors common to all of them.
Physical activity and breathing
Heartbeat and breathing are strongly linked with our stress level. As we sleep and breath and train properly, we stimulate our vagus nerve. This means that sport makes us not only smarter but also more resilient and happier. This correlates with all the several happiness studies I read.
Of cause, everybody has his own favorite sports. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to enjoy the same sports. If you suffered from high-school sports, you can discover a different and much more enjoyable kind of sports as a grown-up. Consider the level of difficulty and engagement, gamification and risk, endurance and agility. People are different. Each country has a different selection of available sports. Running and gymnastics may be far from your ideal sport. Most people enjoy swimming, golf, tennis. However, these sports are not always available.
Breathing can be a part of a meditative activity or a result of the sport you choose. Many types of sport require control of breathing either to get oxygen into the muscles or to stop breathing for a short period of time. Either way, since breathing is controlled via the vagus nerve, by controlling the breathing we directly stimulate the vagus nerve.
We do not need even to do the physical activity. To a certain extent, visualization is sufficient to activate the relevant neural connections. We can visualize ourselves doing some sports or even dream of how we exercise in our sleep, the vagus nerve will get its stimulation.
The connection between the sleep and the vagus nerve is not very clear. Most evidence point to the REM part of the sleep. While we do not run and jump in our REM sleep due to some brain inhibitions, we do pass the relevant signals. There have been experiments by Michel Jouvet showing that REM sleep can be easily transformed into physical activity by some medical intervention.
Here it seems that the activity is directly stimulating the vagus nerve, so it is easy to attribute the effect. This is not the case with some other scenarios.
Self talk and journalism
We know that “gutsy” self-talk and journalism or writing diaries have positive effects. This is based on research. What is not so clear, is how this has anything to do with the vagus nerve itself.
When we perform self-talk with positive encouragement, when we truly listen to ourselves, we probably activate some of the same functions that exist in the social engagement. Just like a good friend can calm us down, or motivate us from apathy, we can do the same thing ourselves. Quite possibly there is some training involved. The more we calm ourselves down, the easier it becomes the next time we need to do it.
I remember the first time I learned this skill during the first gulf war, in the early 1990s. To handle the stress I wrote an essay. The essay did not get a great mark, but the teacher read it in front of the class as an honest text that helps fight anxieties.
Humor has a similar effect. When we laugh we calm down, and it is good for us in the long run. There are studies about laughter and life expectancy.
You do not have to be extremely funny or a great journalist to enjoy the positive effects. I think the effect has to do with you listening to yourself, and loving what you have to say. If you are very professional, you will strive for perfection, and your own self-criticism will negate the effect. Best to be an amateur writer of a kind that loves to read his own texts. You do not need to share what you write, and if you share it is best to have a supportive audience.
One of the interesting effects can be achieved by talking to yourself from a detached position, in a third body language. Like what someone would do or say. By taking distance we negate some of the biases we have towards ourselves. Quite often it is easier to like a total stranger than to love yourself. If you treat yourself like a benevolent stranger it helps.
There is a childhood game when one child completely copies the behavior and the texts of the other. At some point, the person being copied either starts to laugh or becomes extremely positive. It is very hard to be negative when facing this sort of a mirror. By talking yourself in a third body or writing a diary we can get a similar mirror that almost forces us to become positive.
Another strange way to stimulate your vagus nerve is participation. When we truly participate we are not overly stressed or apathetic. There is a healthy stress level called “eustress”
The best way to get positive stress is helping others. It is easier to help others than to face your own problems. There is an element of gamification: each victory is amplified, and each loss is muffled. We feel safe and we feel important and engaged. There is a good flow of oxygen to the brain and a feel of gratification. The key aspect: we empathize with someone in danger, but we ourselves are not in danger. The danger does not have to be physical.
“Flow” is another way to get positive stress. When we face a challenge that is hard and interesting and we know we can solve it, we get engaged. It is similar to some sort of hunting instinct. We are razor-focused and breathe deeply and the heartbeat is just in the right spot. The body is usually so filled with excitement that we may forget to eat or to sleep.
Decreased self-centeredness is always good for the vagus nerve. Quite possibly being focused on our own well-being activates the fight-or-flight instinct. When we lose ourselves in something bigger, we do not get stressed as easily and we are motivated much better.
A true teamwork is not only efficient, it is inspiring. It does not matter if you are a leader, a mentor, a participant or an intern. When we work as a team some ancient hunting instincts are activated. We stop being a prey and become all-powerful hunters.
Direct current stimulation of vagus nerve is an experimental technique. Some experiments show that it may cure drug-resistant depression and symptoms of burnout. Maybe our children will get a suit with all sorts of neural stimulation electrodes, but so far this is not something to try without medical supervision.
The neural paths frequently traveled by brain signals get stronger. And as they get stronger, they are less prone to failure. If we perform the activities labeled as “resilience” and “mindfulness” training we strengthen the vagus nerve connections and make further vagus nerve stimulation easier. This is a virtuous cycle: by doing good we feel better and get the strength to do more good. Let us repeat a short list of virtuous activities:
- Physical activities, possibly outdoors
- Diaphragmic breathing, even better with relaxing visualization
- Narrative diary and storytelling. Run your own blog!
- Face to face social connectedness. Even better as volunteering activity.
- “Flow” state, deep interest and transcendent ecstasy. Find an awesome challenge and enjoy every moment of it.
- Visualization and meditation promoting love, kindness, unity with others. You do not need to be religious to benefit from this sort of psychological comfort.
- Engaging in activities we are truly passionate about. Being a part of something greater.
Please write me if this article and the relevant training interest you. If so, I will release a minicourse.