Kindness Towards Oneself and Others Tones Your Vagus Nerve
Vagus nerve survival guide: Phase seven.
Posted May 30, 2017
This Psychology Today blog post is phase seven of a nine-part series called "The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide." The nine vagal maneuvers featured in each of these blog posts are designed to help you utilize your vagus nerve in ways that can reduce stress, anxiety, anger, egocentric bias, and inflammation by activating the "relaxation response" of your parasympathetic nervous system. Recently, "self-distancing" has also been found to reduce egocentrism and improve vagal tone (VT) as indexed by heart rate variability (HRV).
When it comes to researching and "spreading the gospel" of the vagus nerve, Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a trailblazer and extraordinary spokesperson. Fredrickson recently discussed the role that the vagus nerve plays in creating "micro-moments" of heart-to-heart connectedness that improve vagal tone reciprocally when people are simpatico. Please click on this link to watch her TEDx Lower East Side lecture.
In 2010, Frederickson and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences published their landmark study, "Upward Spirals of the Heart: Autonomic Flexibility, as Indexed by Vagal Tone, Reciprocally, and Prospectively Predicts Positive Emotions and Social Connectedness," in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Fredrickson and Kok hypothesized that having a higher vagal tone might be part of an “upward spiral” that was part of a multi-directional feedback loop that could be accessed from various points of entry. Interestingly, they found people with higher vagal tone have better overall heart health, lower levels of inflammation, stronger social bonds, and tend to exhibit better emotion regulation.
For example, genuine wholehearted micro-moments of social connectedness between two individuals appeared to instantaneously trigger a parasympathetic (“tend-and-befriend”) response that improved vagal tone for both parties involved. The positive visceral and psychological feedback of these warm-hearted exchanges led people to expand social networks in a way that spread positive emotions and prosocial behaviors. From an evolutionary standpoint, one could speculate that this biological response became hardwired as part of a survival mechanism that nurtured cooperative human bonds and alliances that benefitted both the individual and the collective.
Most people are unaware of how extensively the vagus nerve wanders throughout someone's body. I like to include this early anatomical sketch of the "wandering nerve" so that you can visualize the almost "invasion of the body snatchers" extensiveness of the vagal network. Anecdotally, in addition to visualizing my vagus nerve...I literally speak to it in the third person as if it were a separate entity and necessary ally who might have a tendency to "wander" away, if not handled with care. This may sound bizarre, but it's something I've road-tested for years. I'd highly recommend trying this tactic the next time you have butterflies in your stomach or feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up like you're on the verge of having a rage attack. As an example, whenever I feel that I'm about to lose my temper, I will slowly take a very long and deep breath, relax the back of my eyes, and say to my vagus nerve in the third person something like, "You gotta help me stay calm, cool, and collected right now. I need some equanimity. I don't want to be a hot head and say or do anything I'll regret later." For some ineffable reason, having this inner-dialogue with my vagus nerve helps take my ego out of the situation and never fails to put my nervous system at ease. I'd suggest hacking into the power your vagus nerve using this technique the next time you need grace under pressure to see if it works for you, too.
Anxiety, stress, and rage are contagious. These toxic emotions can spark a sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response that spreads like wildfire within your own nervous system and can create a ripple effect of anger and negativity all around you. On the flip side, consciously self-generating positive emotions and kind-heartedness creates a feeling of being safe and sound via the vagus nerve and healthier vagal tone.
The vagus nerve helps to regulate heart rate and is also a key player in our social engagement systems. Long before modern-day researchers were studying the science of human emotion and loving-kindness as being linked to the vagus nerve, scientists were interested in how vagal tone affected the physiology of the heart. When you inhale, heart rate speeds up a bit and when you exhale, the release of acetylcholine—which was originally referred to as vagusstoff (German for "vagus substance”)—slows your heart rate down and prepares your body to "rest-and-digest." A healthy heart is also marked by a high rate of variability (HRV) as you breathe in and out.
In 1895, Theodore Hough published a seminal paper, “On the Escape of the Heart from Vagus Inhibition,” in the Journal of Physiology. Although this very technical research examined the ability of vagal stimulation to slow heart rate in various mammals and amphibians, the poetics of the title can take on new meaning when you think of consciously harnessing your vagus nerve to inhibit negative emotions from filling your heart with hostility. Notably, being “kindhearted” and compassionate towards oneself and others has been observed in a laboratory by monitoring someone’s vagal tone as indexed by HRV and vagus inhibition of heart rate.
In 2013, Fredrickson and colleagues conducted another groundbreaking study that looked at the role that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) played in making the upward spiral dynamic between vagal tone, positive emotions, close-knit human bonds, and physical health more robust.
The key ingredient to turbo-charging this upward spiral of improved vagal tone appeared to be sending loving-kindness towards oneself and towards others—including loved ones...but also rivals, enemies, a nemesis, or anyone you hold a grudge against. The foundation of LKM echoes the wisdom of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who famously said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."
Practicing LKM is systematic and easy. All you have to do is send nice "warm-and-fuzzy" feelings of kindness, love, compassion, and forgiveness towards yourself and others in a checklist type of fashion. That said, even within LKM, there are dozens of different ways that someone can practice a loving-kindness meditation. Based on my personal experience and extensive research, I recommend systematically going through four categories of people as listed below.
Again, it's important to include all of these four groups (including enemies) because this process allows you to remember our human commonality and the universal aspects of struggle and malcontent that every human being experiences in a way that dissolves egocentric bias.
The Four Stages of Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM)
- Friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones.
- Strangers anywhere in the world who are suffering.
- Someone who has hurt, maligned or let you down.
- Forgive yourself for any negativity or harm you’ve caused yourself or others.
As always, I would recommend fine-tuning your daily practice of LKM to fit your lifestyle and personality. If you are pressed for time, remember, this four-step LKM process can be done in just a few minutes anytime and anywhere throughout the day.
There is one important caveat. Some experts don’t include sending loving-kindness and forgiveness towards oneself as part of LKM. I think this is a mistake. As the pioneering research of Kristin Neff reminds us, self-compassion is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of beating yourself up and then feeling the knee-jerk reaction to cut other people down to build yourself up again to regain some self-esteem. In her paper, "Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself,” Neff writes
“Self-compassion is an emotionally positive self-attitude that should protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination (such as depression). Because of its non-evaluative and interconnected nature, it should also counter the tendencies towards narcissism, self-centeredness, and downward social comparison that have been associated with attempts to maintain self-esteem.”
Along this same line, in 2016 Igor Grossmann looked at the link between HRV, vagal tone, self-distancing, and egocentrism. In his paper, “A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning," Grossmann and colleagues write,
“To our knowledge, only a handful of studies have explored the relationship between egocentric (vs.-prosocial) tendencies and trait-HRV directly...Research indicates that cueing people to reflect on social experiences from a self-distanced perspective leads them to focus less on egocentric recounting of their experiences and more on reconstruing the experience in ego-decentering, ways that facilitate insight and reconciliation of disagreements, helping them to work through social dilemma they encounter in their lives.”
Self-compassion and LKM are easy ways to start giving yourself the same degree of loving-kindness you would bestow on any friend, family member or loved one. That being said, some research suggests that too much self-forgiveness and kindness to oneself can backfire. For example, if you are too self-forgiving, researchers found that people can shrug off accountability and this can lead to unintended hubris and lack of empathy. When it comes to self-forgiveness, finding a sweet spot that focuses on kindness towards oneself and others simultaneously in an "I'm okay, you're okay" kind of way is key.
Lastly, a 2015 paper by Dacher Keltner and colleagues summarizes four different studies on "Affective and physiological responses to the suffering of others: Compassion and vagal activity." Keltner et al. concluded, "Compassion is associated with activation in the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system through the vagus nerve...Compassion, a core affective component of empathy and prosociality, is associated with heightened parasympathetic activity."
Hopefully, the combination of anecdotal actionable advice and clinical research will inspire you to make the simple "vagal maneuver" of practicing a little more kindness towards yourself and others a part of your daily routine. Please stay tuned for upcoming posts in this vagus nerve survival guide series.
Theodore Hough, On the Escape of the Heart from Vagus Inhibition. J Physiol. 1895 Jul 18;18(3):161-200. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16992249
Kok, B. E., and Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology. 85, 432–436. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005
B. E. Kok, K. A. Coffey, M. A. Cohn, L. I. Catalino, T. Vacharkulksemsuk, S. B. Algoe, M. Brantley, B. L. Fredrickson. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612470827
Kristin Neff Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity Vol. 2 , Iss. 2,2003 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032
Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra, and Joseph Ciarrochi. A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 2016 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00068
Stellar, Jennifer E.; Cohen, Adam; Oveis, Christopher; Keltner, Dacher. Affective and physiological responses to the suffering of others: Compassion and vagal activity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 108(4), Apr 2015, 572-585. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000010