Craniosacral Therapy, Sympathetic Shift – and the Vagus Nerve

Often the most subtle treatments can have the greatest impact. The body is a wonder. It contains the innate wisdom and the means to heal itself. Sometimes it needs a gentle reminder.

I saw this quote today:

“A healer is not someone you go to for healing. A healer is someone who triggers within you, your own ability to heal yourself.”

– And it reminded me that I need to write a little something about the vagus nerve, how its function can be impaired by trauma – and how Craniosacral therapy can be used as an effective treatment for a number of issues arising from vagal trauma.

The Vagus Nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, and is the longest nerve in the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System). It controls several autonomic functions (including digestion and heart rate) and reaches all the way down to the colon. It is further classified as a Parasympathetic nerve (PNS), meaning that it’s function is dependent on proper homeostatic balance with the Sympathetic Nervous System.The Sympathetic Nervous System is associated, among other things, with our fight-or-flight response. When the SNS is activated, through trauma or immanent danger – it halts digestive peristalsis, increases heart rate, increases blood flow to skeletal muscle – providing energy to the body’s systems necessary to remove you from, or respond to – danger. 
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (of which the Vagus Nerve is an important part) signals the body to rest, digest, repair. These two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System are like scales. Both cannot be activated at the same time – it’s one or the other. 
This very intricate and delicate balance is interrupted by prolonged emotional stress, or physical trauma – and the SNS becomes chronically dominant. This is referred to as Sympathetic Shift by Alexander Lowen, pioneer of Bioenergetic Therapy. Arguably, most people alive today suffer in one way or another from some kind of vagal / stress response issue – and the effects of it (there are many) are usually diagnosed improperly or incompletely – especially issues with digestion, heart rate, blood pressure.
Full disclosure – although I have read a lot of books and material on Craniosacral Therapy and Polyvagal Theory – and have had some training, (and quite a bit of practice) I’m not certified in any one particular protocol.
Massage therapists usually consider our different trainings as tools in our kits, and we whip them out when the need arises. Other things you might find helpful to stimulate the Vagus Nerve – deep diaphragmatic breathing or Pranayama. Lots of people have found it helpful. But as far as hands-on help, Craniosacral techniques are simple, intuitive, and effective tools for treating a lot of things, and I’m always delighted when something so subtle can have such a big impact.
Thanks for reading!

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