About 20 years ago, I participated in a blood drive. The process itself was uneventful. Afterward, I was led to a table where I was to eat a cookie and have some juice. That is where things got interesting. I came to, on the floor, surrounded by staff furiously moving around and taking my vitals. I slowly came to understand that I had been unconscious and had likely had a seizure. I had been advised that fainting was possible but seizing? not so much (note, this is not a common response to blood donation so please keep doing that). Many days and medical evaluations later, I had an answer. I had had a vasovagal episode, specifically a Reflex Syncope. Great. Which led to the next logical question, what the hell is that?
That was the beginning of my curiosity about and fascination with the vagus nerve.
In its simplest definition, the vagus nerve is one of the cranial nerves that connect the brain to the body. In practice, the vagus nerve is unusual in the variety of its functions and how it connects to the tissues it is innervating.
Innervate: To stimulate to movement or action; to supply with energy
First, the vagus nerve has a sensory function connecting the heart, lungs, throat, and abdomen to the brain. It also has another sensory function in that it allows the tongue to taste. It is responsible for the motor functions of the neck including swallowing and voicing. The vagus nerve has parasympathetic (rest & digest) functions as well in that it is responsible for breathing, digestion, and heart rate. The dorsal branch of the vagus is responsible for the shutdown response also known as freeze or faint. The shutdown response works closely with the fight or flight response of the sympathetic system to maintain a sense of safety in the body. Other related functions of the vagus nerve include communication between the gut and the brain, relaxation through the slowing of breath and/or heart rate, reduction of blood pressure, reduction of inflammation in the body, and fear management including regulation of stress and/or anxiety. It even has a role to play in arousal. In other words, the vagus gets around.
Vagus (latin): Wandering
So now that we have a bare-bones description of what it is and what it does, how does it relate to the voice? Obviously, it applies the impulses of the brain to the actual movement of the muscles of voicing as well as having active involvement in the coordination of breathing required. Beyond that, the vagus nerve is deeply involved in how we regulate stress and fear which are factors with a direct effect upon voice use.
We cannot affect the vagus nerve by just thinking about it but learning how to stimulate it can be extremely useful for the voice user.
- Deep breathing: As a primary function of the vagus nerve, allowing your breathing to slow down and process more oxygen gives the vagus a job to focus on.
- Mindful movement: Practices such as Fitzmaurice Voicework, Yoga, and some forms of dance can help you connect to the interconnectivity of vagus functions and correct some potential hyperactivities with the nerve.
- Cold: Cold air entering the respiratory system is thought to be a great stimulator of vagus activity and an excellent reset when the nerve is hyperactive in any part of its “wandering” spectrum.
- Acupuncture: While the studies are limited it does seem that acupuncture may help stimulate healthy nerve function.
- Singing: This is my favorite way to stimulate the vagus nerve. Singing requires variability in air use, activation of abdominal muscles, and regulation of fear/stress. Its emphasis on the attempt to communicate and connect also help the vagus exercise through many of its functions for one activity.
The last concept I want to mention today is possibly the most important for some of you as you approach voice use. That is the Polyvagal Theory.
Polyvagal theory (based upon the work of Stephen Porges, Ph.D.) explores the ways in which trauma, both physical and emotional, can disrupt and corrupt the function of the vagus nerve. It states that one can be functioning perpetually in the fight/flight/freeze response and never fully allow the rest/digest functions of the vagus nerve to be active. The results of which can have powerful implications for health but for our purposes can have detrimental impacts on attempts to speak or sing with confidence and ease. As we mentioned previously, the vagus gets around which is problematic when it is not functioning as intended. The polyvagal theory doesn’t just define the problem, it also provides for solutions to this ‘shut down.’ One of the primary prescriptions is the application of tremor or physical shaking. The findings from this work are among the reasons I use Fitzmaurice Voicework as a modality in the studio and why I practice it in my own voice study. I have spoken about Fitzmaurice in previous posts but if you want more information, the Fitzmaurice Institute website is here.
To bring it all together, what do you actually need to know about the vagus nerve? It is helpful to have some understanding of what it affects for building intention. I also think that a proactive approach to making sure the vagus nerve has every opportunity to be in optimal function is the best management for empowered voice use. Lastly, for those of us managing trauma of any kind, knowing how to dance with the vagus nerve is not only important for voice and speech but can also be impactful for general health and well-being.
I hope you have questions. If you do, or even if you just have something to add please leave a comment here or contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay. She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user. Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as a professional public speaker. For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com