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Fear and Loathing in a Lost Vagus

Why do people suffer anxiety and unexplained fear? The problem is the vagus nerve which is the prime director of all your autonomic (unconscious) processes. It not only connects all the internal organs including stomach, heart, liver, lungs and kidneys,it’s upper part (the more recently evolved ventral vagus) innervates the head and neck, being responsible for social connection and our understanding of other’s intentions and emotional states.

Via its connections to our brain (about 80% of information flow is to the brain rather than vice versa), it also gives us a sense of what our own bodies are up to – are we safe, connected, able to play, connect with others and so on? The subtleties of its messages and how they interact with certain emotional brain centres of the limbic system (especially the amygdala, our fear centre) allow us to feel a sense of self – whole, alive, real.

When the vagus nerve is unbalanced and perceives threat - from things like a tight musculature/constricted gut (interoception) or via sensory signals of dysregulation in others (ecteroception) – shifty look, angry face or even the absence of expression (which is often wrongly interpreted as angry), harsh tone of voice, etc - we go into a state of threat (usually engaging fight or flightsympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system), or if the threat is consistently severe, into freeze (dorsal vagal or immobilisation response).

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

This is a state akin to ‘preparation for death’ in the animal; It shuts down all the major systems of the body to minimise pain in the event of imminent death. For humans, it can manifest as states of disconnection, disembodiment, dissociation. We can quite literally leave our bodies for some other, less stressful place. Some people faint, or get dizzy spells, are flooded with anxiety/dread, Irritable Bowel (IBS) symptoms, jaw tightening, others get ringing ears (tinnitus) or tingling in the extremities. Some just zone out for a while, dissociate and time is lost.

For most people it is more subtle, they just feel out of body, vague and ‘not here’. There are so many ways in which the freeze response manifests, it’s hard to give you a full list here.

But one way in which I have noticed it affects humans particularly is in feelings of self-loathing and distrust of the self. After all, if you feel you can no longer trust your internal sensations to save you, or get you out of the situation you’re in, a state of helplessness and eventually self-rejection occurs. We all need to feel agency, ie., the ability to mobilise ourselves out of states of despair, hopelessness and distress. If we find ourselves, though no fault of our own, in this state time after time, the mind decides that it is us that is wrong.

A childlike view no doubt; called ‘magical thinking’ by psychology. More simply I term it feeling ‘mad, bad or sad’. But this simply perpetuates our shame and distress which further locks in symptoms.

So, what’s the solution? Firstly, connection with a safe other. In families, this is normally a parent. We are all born to connect, with other nervous systems to help us regulate. Without an appropriately calm, regulated nervous system to attune to, we flounder – our brains cannot regulate and instead we pick up their distress. An opportunity to consolidate (wire up) healthy neuronal connections is lost and we find ourselves adrift in a sea of uncertainty and self-loathing. 

Having decided we are to blame for our internal state, we unwittingly perpetuate a negative view of ourselves (shame) which our body simply follows. We have a glazed, stunned look about us, sometimes our muscles are weak or painful, we have no energy with which to do things, and our posture is caved in and slumped. We unconsciously choose life situations which are reminiscent of our past i.e. negative and destructive, particularly in our love relationships but also with friends, colleagues and neighbours. This is called trauma re-enactment. We become stuck in a self-perpetuating system of  disconnection from self. This is where therapy can be helpful if it is the right sort.

A therapy that connects us with our bodies again, asks us to engage with where and how we feel things, the quality of the feeling. Once you have tuned into this, your body can help you resolve the emotional feelings that are stuck in that sensation. A body or somatic psycho-therapist will then use a variety of different techniques** and tools to help you track and resolve this stuck feeling by allowing it to be felt rather than avoided and shut down. This is the only way I know of that works. Talking simply isn’t enough as it uses the wrong part of your brain – the thinking brain which is switched off when you are in these dysregulated states.  It is after all, a survival response, regulated by the autonomic nervous system and limbic brain.

The result? when the connection (social engagement system – the ventral vagal) comes back online again, the changes are swift and profound. A lift in mood, symptoms move or disappear altogether, and an internal (and sometimes external) smile begins. Some people who have worked with me have begun shaking, laughing, or just looked stunned when their connection to themselves is restored. This is how life should be, this is how we should feel. No more wandering, just a sense of self, found at last.

*by heart rate variability

** Cranio-sacral, Somatic Experiencing,  EFT, EMDR for example. there are even trials at the moment using MDMA and magic mushrooms for this purpose.


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