Experiencing a trauma can leave a person with all sorts of confusing, even debilitating reactions. Flashbacks to the event may arise without warning and at the most inopportune times. Things that seemingly have absolutely no relationship to the tragedy can trigger feelings, thoughts and memories that make the person unable to cope with normal life. His anxiety and depression may seem overwhelming.
It’s not uncommon for an injured worker with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to want nothing more than to avoid people, just stay in bed all day. It may be the only place he feels any sense of safety. Fortunately, science has shown that certain actions and strategies can quell the bodily system largely responsible and help the injured worker regain function and his life.
The Vagus Nerve
The stress arousal response travels through the body, gut, heart and lung to the brain via a neural pathway called the vagus nerve. When it gets out of whack, which can happen after a person experiences a traumatic event, it does not respond to stress as it normally would. That can wreak all sorts of havoc on the body and render the person unable — and unwilling — to engage socially. But socialization helps the person overcome their fears. Controlling the vagus nerve settles down all the other stress arousal responses and gets the person to socially interact.
Called the wandering nerve, the vagus nerve has multiple branches that reach throughout the body. When it is out of whack, such as after experiencing a traumatic event, the vagus nerve may have less ability to perform its normal functions. The result can be myriad symptoms, including everything from fatigue to depression, anxiety, brain fog, depersonalization and food sensitivities.
Among the organs the vagus nerve can affect are:
- The brain — controlling anxiety and depression.
- The gut — controlling stomach acidity and digestive juice secretion.
- The heart — controlling the heart rate and blood pressure.
- Liver and pancreas — helping control blood glucose balance.
- Gallbladder — releasing bile, which helps eliminate toxins and breaks down fat.
- Kidneys — promoting general kidney function.
Calming the vagus nerve inhibits these stress responses.
Fixing the Vagus Nerve
There are many strategies that can get the vagus nerve back to its normal function. Here are several we use:
- Cold water on the face is an excellent way to stimulate the vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for fainting — one of the “freeze” responses to danger. Splashing cold water on the face wakes up the vagus nerve and awakens the person from fainting.
- Regular/irregular breathing is another tactic. Taking a series of deep, belly breaths interspersed with irregular breaths settles the vagus nerve, which settles the brain and the breathing and, finally, the heart rate.
- Humming, chanting, or repeating a mantra gets the vagus nerve to respond. Nearly any subvocal type of vocalization can be effective.
- Yoga and meditation increase the vagus nerve.
- Positive social relationships are another way to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Once the vagus nerve is back in action and functioning normally, the injured worker is ready for exposure therapy. This step-by-step process leads them to expose themselves to the trauma and will be the subject of a future blog post.
Ascellus – Integrated Medical Case Solutions – is the premier behavioral medicine network for pain and trauma response with evidence-based outcomes and a proven track record for transforming workers’ compensation cases. Ascellus makes intervention efficient with a national network of 1,500+ psychologists and psychiatrists in all 50 states.
Ascellus bridges the gap between mental and physical health to accelerate recovery for our nation's workforce. By connecting the workers' compensation industry with our expert behavioral care and evidence-based treatments, we deliver high-quality outcomes, helping injured workers reemerge with increased strength, purpose and resilience in the workplace.