Central to our work helping people build stronger families is the Vagus nerve and something scientists call Vagal tone.
Low vagal tone is associated with a range of health risks, whereas people with high vagal tone are not just healthier, they’re also socially and psychologically stronger – better able to concentrate and remember things, happier and less likely to be depressed, more empathic and more likely to have close friendships. (Read more about this from the scientists)”
If you are familiar with my work you may have heard me talk about vagal tone before. For instance; when I encourage people to learn to self soothe, I am helping them learn to improve their vagal tone.
Doctors are finding remarkable new links every day now between V tone and health, executives are working on their V tone to improve their courage, while psychologists recommend it for happiness and social success. Good vagal tone has in fact been discovered to be the best indicator science has found yet for predicting a person’s likelihood to succeed in life.
I will offer a few hacks to improve your vagal tone in a moment, but first I want to explain why this is so important in our work . . .
Emotional Self Defense = True ‘Social Security’
The ritual of monitoring yourself to start noticing the instant you become upset, making a note of the trigger, self soothing and then coming back to that note later to work on setting a boundary is described so many times throughout my work that I am not going to repeat it here. Instead today I want to add a new but very important concept of equally matching the force of what comes at you.
I am no expert in self defence but I am sure there is a rule somewhere about responding with equal force if you want to avoid a fight. For instance if someone throws a punch at you it is important to block it forcefully, but not to hit back if you do not want the fight to continue.
An example of unmatched force would be a person pulling a gun on someone who flicks a towel at them.
That kind of unmatched reaction will not only escalate the chances of someone taking you down, but also make you a social leper.
Emotionally the situation is similar and this is where vagal tone comes in.
Someone with very poor vagal tone is going to get really worked up and not be able to drop it when they perceive even the slightest jibe as an insult. This type of lag in nervous system regulation is bad for your health, love life, social success and career prospects all at once.”
Likewise someone who doesn’t even notice the jibe – or cowers at it – is likely to be perceived as low status or even a soft target for exploitation or cruel sport.
Emotionally just like physically, it is important we match the force of what comes at us in life.
This applies to positive emotions as well. A person making a positive gesture towards you can sometimes be called ‘a bid’. Research has shown if you don’t match that bid, most people will not try again.
“I love you too” is the only right answer if someone says they love you, anything else and your relationship is headed for the woods.”
“I love you” is about the biggest and riskiest bid we can make on an emotional level and instinctively we know that before making this type of declaration we should be pretty certain that emotionally it is going to be reciprocated with equal force.
Getting it Right
Science is discovering more every day about how our nervous system (sometimes called our limbic system) governs our success in just about every aspect of our life. Science’s long words can be daunting however and so let’s try and make these concepts a little easier to work with and understand:
Let’s say that when our parasympathetic nervous system is active we will call it ‘smooth sailing’ for our purposes here. Then let’s think of ‘smooth sailing’ as seeing ourselves on a paddle board out in the surf.”
Next up we have a state most of us are familiar with, which I will call ‘flailing’ today. I want to use this to represent our sympathetic nervous system, which when switched on is sometimes called ‘fight or flight’. Instead, today I want you to picture this state as ‘flailing’, that is falling off the paddle board when there are sharks, high seas or you can’t swim. I am making this change from ‘fight or flight’, because there are very few situation where being in this state for long will help you in any way. Except for a few very extreme situations, being on your board with your higher cognitive functions fully functioning is just about always the safest place to be.
There is another less known state (also governed by your vagus nerve) which causes our body to freeze and us to disassociate from our body when we really fear we are about to die. In water this might cause our breathing to stop so we don’t take in water, while also slowing down all body functions to preserve oxygen. This is what has happened when people are successfully revived after 20 minutes being under water, when really water should have entered their lungs and their brain should be dead after that amount of time. Today we are going to call that state ‘numb’. Again this state may only be useful once or twice in our whole life.
So to begin with in simple terms as we move through life, neurologically we can be ‘smooth sailing’, ‘flailing’ or ‘numb’.
The aim of the game is to stay on your paddle board (neuroscientists call this ‘recruiting your parasympathetic nervous system’) but this can be hard to do and in fact many people go through large portions of their life in some degree of a ‘numb’ or ‘flailing’ state.
Our V tone is just a way of describing how good we are at getting back on our board once we get unbalanced or knocked off.
As emotions are signals from our limbic system they are in fact both the ‘carrots’ that help us choose our direction in life, as well as the alarm bells that let us know we might be going to get knocked off balance.
The problem is many of us have limbic systems that run either too warm or cool. Too cool and we ignore our limbic systems warning signs (often blaming outside threats on ourselves) and ignore the carrots too and end up paddling into deep water or high seas we should have steered well clear of. Too warm and as we paddle madly for our goal, small thing that really were not a danger at all knock us over and leave us flailing ‘in the drink’.
These over reactive emotions that unbalance us are also contagious and if we want to ‘stay on our board’ it is logical we will avoid people who are over reactive and who might trigger us to become unbalanced too.
I share more about the things that help us accept and feel for each other in my ebook The Little Book of Empathy Love and Friendship, but finding out whether you are financially and emotionally balanced tends to be the first two important prerequisites for people deciding if they feel safe enough to get any closer to you.
So as we are paddling along looking for people to socialise with and share our journey, how do we test how emotionally balanced the people we meet truly are? It is fine when the sun is shining and the seas balmy – but how will we know how this person will react to a serious threat like a storm or a shark? Because let’s face it, most of us are just doing all we can to keep our own board afloat and in a crisis we ultimately want people in our life who can ‘stay on their board’ and not end up needing us to help stabilise them (and possibly unbalance us in the process).
What most of us do to test this, whether we know it consciously or not, is use our paddle to give them a bit of a nudge. If they respond with equal force and we both maintain balance we feel safe and trust will begin to build. For some a short period of testing will be enough before they settle into smooth sailing side by side, but for others the testing may in itself become fun and the two feel they are getting stronger by exchanging harder and harder nudges or ‘jabs’. You will see this sometimes with teenage boys making friends (if they live in an emotionally aggressive environment) where the aggressive and nasty way they talk to each other can make it hard for outsiders to believe they are friends.
Learning this kind of emotional self-defence is why teasing and rough play are important for children as they grow up. Not to be mean, just getting them ready for how this testing will happen in the outside world. If you have ever watched a mother cat raise her kittens you will see cats do this as well. A point will even come where the kitten really gets scared by the mothers ‘attack’ while the mother cat waits with them pinned to the floor looking quizically about just what they are going to do next.
Because out in the big bad world, if the person who receives the nudge (more on that in a moment) overreacts or withdraws, it is fairly normal that the person who did the testing will decide that maybe this is not a person they want to befriend or trust. Even worse they may decide it is someone they can exploit. Not only people whose limbic system runs cool. Over reactive people are often seen as weak and easy to exploit too.
So now for the V tone hacks I promised – which in other words are ways to get our nervous system to have a fast and effective response to things that unbalance us and by doing so help keep us ‘onboard’.
Because as I mentioned before, most situation you will find yourself up against, will not benefit from you entering fully into ‘flailing’ or ‘numb’ mode.
I have a breakthrough conclusion to share at the end, so I hope you will stick with me.
Vagal Tone Hacks
I have been reading lately about cold showers being good for improving V tone, which reminded me of a story a man told me once at an amusement park many years ago. He was working one of the rides for small children and we chatted while watching mine ride round and round. What he shared was how he believed he had cured himself of mental illness. You might imagine this making me nervous, but his confidence and relaxed demeanour made me trust he was in fact sane. His remedy while remarkably simple, would now probably be found to have a strong basis in brain science and adds an extra dimension to the cold shower theory.
What he did was to start walking quickly into the cold surf everyday while doing his best to force his body not to react to the sudden shock of the icy cold water. Thats it. That alone is what he swore cured him and helped him to turn his life around so that in his late 30’s for the first time in his life he was able to hold down a steady job and maintain a love relationship.
More than just a cold shower, this man was using the cold water to intentionally retrain his own nervous system’s response. He was intentionally nudging himself if you will, while training himself to ‘stay onboard’.
Next in my hack research I found a study that shows training our own emotional ‘frame’ on life can have a positive effect on V tone.
In 2010, Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok recruited around 70 university staff members for an experiment. Each volunteer was asked to record the strength of emotions they felt every day. Vagal tone was measured at the beginning of the experiment and at the end, nine weeks later. As part of the experiment, half of the participants were taught a meditation technique to promote feelings of goodwill towards themselves and others.
Those who meditated showed a significant rise in vagal tone, which was associated with reported increases in positive emotions. “That was the first experimental evidence that if you increased positive emotions and that led to increased social closeness, then vagal tone changed,” Kok says.” (Read the full story on this here)
Another powerful hack is learning to breathe with a longer exhale than inhale. Just a sniff of air through the nose and a longer exhale will calm us down in most anxious situations. One esteemed brain scientist recommends learning a woodwind instrument as being helpful when teaching this to children. People with chronic heart and lung disease are taught to do pursed lip breathing, forcing a very long exhale. Many people are now using this technique to manage angina and serious chronic pulmonary disease.
Another not so surprising so called hack is to surround ourselves with people who talk in a loving tone of voice and who are sympathetic towards us. This is recommended because tone of voice has been found to be one of the most powerful triggers for our nervous system, getting itself ‘back on board’. Stephen Porges (the esteemed Professor Emeritus at more than one university) relates that it is interesting to look at the folk music scene in the 60s where women would sing ghastly songs about war and all kinds of distressing subjects – while everyone sat around smiling and holding hands. He relates this directly to the tone of voice of the singers – a tone which he has found directly calms our nervous system. I wonder if the ‘tone’ in V tone is not coincidence, because as far as our nervous system is concerned it really is all about tone of voice!
You may find it amusing that this same tone the folk singers were using is how we often talk to our pets. This might add weight to the suggestion I sometimes make, for wives not to be afraid to talk to their husbands as if he was your dog! (Steve actually gets so excited and happy when I do this I have to make sure I am ready to play!).
Back to business; these science hacks will help for sure, but I want to get to something that I know from personal and professional experience can have a profoundly transformational influence on just about every aspect of your life and is at the heart what I teach.
If you are a person who suffers frequent emotional upsets, our self monitoring, self soothing and later assessment ritual (where you develop better boundaries and comeback lines for later) is what I believe to undoubtably be the best V tone hack of all – and I will soon explain why.
But first I need to add one more nervous system state.
So far we have ‘smooth sailing’, ‘flailing’ and ‘numb’ and now I am going to add ‘driven’.
Driven people are not really on their paddle board but instead are swimming behind pushing it. They have at some point had a (near death) scare with ‘numb’ that has left them frightened of getting back on their paddle board and relaxing. They seem calm enough and efficient in their work – but ask them to stop for very long and instead of ever enjoying day dreaming or digesting their food (positive forms of ‘numb’) these states frighten them and cause them to over react (literally fearing death) and jolt back into action. Steve is a bit like this and laughs that he has only two states, one being active and the other asleep.
This ‘driven’ state is very common (and also fed by adrenaline and dopamine but that is another subject). I have noticed people who are driven can also handle a high degree of aggravation without being unbalanced (they are off their ‘board’ already remember) but seeing their own chronically agitated state as normal they can unfortunately become impatient with people who are ‘smooth sailing’ and cause them to become unbalanced (if they are not prepared).
Except for the seriously driven individual, we all crave an environment that will soothe our nervous system and help keep our parasympathetic nervous system ‘onboard’.
So here is the clincher and where I want to drive this analogy home.
If our nervous system becomes dependent on people smiling at us and talking to us as if we are a loved pet to keep us ‘onboard’, we will become people who are emotionally dependent (codependent) in life.
We all want to feel loved and secure sure, but I would argue that requiring all of our relationships provide this for us is not a hack. Instead I offer training similar to the man forcing himself to stay calm while entering the cold surf. I am interested in the signals my limbic system provides me sure, but instead or demanding other people make me feel safe and leaving my emotional balance in their hands – I want to be the person in charge of keeping my own balance.
So now this is where we come back to the concept of learning how to emotionally push back with equal force.
Most important to understand is that it is not wrong to get upset or have an emotional reaction. What is important is measuring that reaction to be appropriate to the reality of the situation. Going into the cold surf is a real shock to the system, but we know that in reality the cold is not going to cause us any harm. So in this situation there is no reason to react and learning to control our limbic systems response is certainly going to help ‘toughen us up’ .
Likewise we need to learn that if our limbic system is switching into ‘flail’, ‘numb’ or ‘driven’, just because someone has decided to use a less friendly tone of voice (remember this is a major trigger), rather than let that knock us off balance; instead we need to judge how to push back with equal force.
This won’t work in the heat of the moment and in truth this story is the secret of how the tortoise beat the hare. Our limbic system is too fast to catch on the fly and this is why to do this work successfully we need steps to help us start planning ahead.
To do this we start with self monitoring which involves having the wisdom to call an internal ‘time out’ on ourselves when we first notice we have become upset. We then make a note of what triggered us to lose our balance. At this point we can dig deep for the strength to ‘wake up’ our vagus nerve, and to help sooth ourselves by remembering our favorite hacks. This might involve listening to a recording of someone talking nicely to us (Lovable Me), having a cold shower or just doing something we love. Then later we can look at the trigger and decide what we might do next time this happens to match the other person’s force.
I will leave you with one of the simplest comebacks used in Australia – that has probably begun more friendships than any other words. I may have to make a movie about this soon because as I mentioned before it really is all in the tone of your voice.
Person A: Australian testing to see if other person is emotionally balanced says something negative or slightly rude.
Person B: Are you right? (said in a sassy questioning tone like “was that a joke?”)
Person A: Thinks okay cool they are alright.
That’s it and there you have it. Three little words to bring someone who is testing you closer, that are a lot less risky (and more appropriate in the situation) than “I love You”. A gentle comeback nearly as simple as bracing yourself in the cold surf. Because when building trust in any relationship, ultimately we need to demonstrate that we are not leaving our emotional balance up to the other person and expecting that they will always be there to help soothe us and keep our limbic system ‘onboard’.
Vagal tone is not about making emotional demands on others, instead it is about taking control of your own emotional ‘buttons’ and learning just how hard we need to push back.
PS. If your limbic system is stuck in ‘numb’, ‘flailing’ or ‘driven’ it is vital you take responsibility for creating a safe environment to soothe yourself and get back onboard. Ultimately feeling safe is what will bring your parasympathetic nervous system back. Too often we look to others to provide this security for us. I am suggesting that true ‘social security’ really only comes from taking this into your own hands.
PSS. As a final hack – Always remember that smiling helps switch your vagus nerve on :)
If you are new to my work you can get started on a free tutorial that will get you started working towards a better marriage here
Understanding the concepts in this article are also an important frame of understanding to help you work through my advice in our Earning Respect Series on dealing with Verbal aggression and passive aggression.