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SMITH: What my dog taught me about my nervous system

My goddaughter, Claire, has a therapy dog named Bozworth. Boz, a large boxer mix with a heart of gold, adores my cockapoo Barkley.

Barkley loves a puppy play date, but he is a scared little dude and the two always reenact a scene common to two-leggeds that spend time at the dog park.

It goes like this.

The two dogs pull on their leashes to get close. When they are almost touching, there is an instinctual pulling back, some wary sniffing, some mental processing of the situation’s safety. The two decide who is in charge. In our case, Boz is Alpha and Barkley is Beta.

Now, Barkley has a few choices.

He might get over excited and run around in circles without actually interacting with Boz.

He might prepare to mix it up, baring his teeth and growling.

He might get so nervous that he just shuts down, rolling onto his back and exposing his throat to Boz in supplication.

He might decide that Boz feels like a safe friend. If this happens, Barkley will take on the shape of what we call downward dog in yoga, that curiously playful stance where his head is low and his wagging tail is high. This universal social posture says, “Let’s go! It’s time to play!”

Humans do this too.

Our bodies are constantly reacting to our environment. Most times, our bodies and brains have decided how we will proceed in a given situation before that information even gets to our conscious processing.

Sometimes, we freak out and overreact, sometimes, we shut down or numb out, and sometimes, we feel calm, present and ready to play.

How we react has a lot to do with something called the vagus nerve.

Vagus means “wandering,” so we sometimes call it the wandering nerve. It is aptly named, since it starts in the brain stem and then “wanders” throughout the head, neck and torso. It has endings that hit in the face, throat, chest and abdomen.

Think of the vagus nerve as the intercom between the brain and the body. Most of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are receptive, meaning they receive information from our senses and shoot it up to the brain; this long nerve also receives information from the brain and transmits that data to the organs.

This nerve oversees all sorts of important functions, like our gut health, heart rate, lung function and speech. It’s the lifeline of the mind-body connection.

Imagine the nervous system like a ladder with three rungs. The top rung is the ventral vagal response, where we feel connected and engaged, calm and curious.

This is your mindful, present state. If the brain perceives a threat, we often take a step down the ladder to the sympathetic rung. This is where we decide to either move towards (fight) or away from (flight) that threat. Here, we might feel anxious or panicked or angry.

Sometimes, we skip the second rung and go to the dorsal vagal response, where we feel immobile (freeze, fold and – occasionally – faint). This is like the body’s failsafe survival mechanism.

Dorsal also happens when we’ve been in a sympathetic stress response too long. Our bodies can only pump out stress hormones for so long before they just shut down. In the dorsal vagal state, we might feel depressed, helpless, hopeless, exhausted or completely numb.

The vagus is our major parasympathetic nerve, supplying “rest and digest” fibers throughout the body to balance out any stress response triggered in the brain’s amygdala.

Basically, the sympathetic nervous system mobilizes us for survival via the fight or flight response (think cortisol and epinephrine) and the parasympathetic system helps us lower our defenses (using the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) to come back to a calm, curious and compassionate state. Stress hormones elevate the heart rate and acetylcholine slows the heart rate.  

It has been said that the longest journey in the world lies in the distance between the head and the heart, but I disagree. Gapping the distance between our thoughts, feelings and reactions only takes a few breaths.

When we inhale, sensory nodes on our lungs send information via the wandering nerve to the brain. When we exhale, the brain sends information back down the nerve

to slow or speed up the heart rate. When we breathe slowly, the heart slows down and we relax. When we breathe too quickly, our heart speeds up and we feel anxious and nervous.

Ever been to a yoga class? It’s no coincidence that we flow through other poses, but always spend five long breaths in down dog pose. The deep breathing here is coupled with an inversion, where the head hangs below the heart. This is a one-two punch to help send us into a state of ease. 

Try it for yourself:

— Begin on hands and knees. Align your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Spread your fingers wide and press firmly through your palms to distribute your weight evenly across your hands.

— Tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor. Press your hips up toward the ceiling, creating an inverted V shape. Gently begin to straighten your legs, but do not lock your knees. 

— Let the head hang with gravity and draw your awareness to the breath. 

— Breathing through the nose, inhale for about four seconds and exhale for about six seconds. 

— Try to take 5 breaths in this manner.

— Rest in child’s pose.

Try this anytime you feel worried or depressed to help bring back your peaceful, playful, puppy heart. 

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel.