Chronic anxiety, Lyme disease and trauma
Working with anxiety through your vital organs
After this week in American politics, I am particularly tuned to our cultural need to develop compassion for those suffering anxiety. What does every human being need? To be heard. To be valued. To matter.
Whether women are bravely disclosing sexual trauma, or asking doctors and law makers to believe our Lyme disease symptoms, we want and need the validation of respectful, listening ears. This is human dignity. The lack of it brings alienation, anger and even panic.
Culturally, we can demand all people be treated with respect and dignity - regardless of gender, race or economic status. Personally, we can work with our own anxiety and panic (whether Lyme disease related, or triggered by the damn news) through our bodies, in the moment, with the same kind of compassion for ourselves that we would offer another.
the vagus nerve: root of chronic anxiety
The vagus nerve begins in our brain, and flows down to enervate our lungs, heart and digestive system. This amazing nerve is responsible for the regulation of “fight or flight” - in other words, it regulates fear. If fear becomes chronic - as can happen with Lyme disease or survived trauma - our fight or flight response can get stuck in the “on” position.
A fight or flight response raises our heart rate and slows digestion - moving blood to major muscles and preparing us to kick butt or flee. This is great if we need to dodge an oncoming car, but really problematic when triggered by long term physical or emotional stress. Lyme Warriors learn from experience that in order for basic, cellular healing to take place we can’t stay in a fight or flight state - we need deep, systemic rest and relaxation.
the diaphragm is a key to metabolic rest and healing
Luckily for us, we have tons of conscious control over our own metabolism. The simplest and best way to soothe your vagus nerve and reset your nervous system is through awareness of your diaphragm and your breath.
Your diaphragm is a large, umbrella shaped muscle that lies beneath your heart and lungs, supporting them and separating them from your abdominal cavity. Your diaphragm is intimately linked with the rhythm of your breath, and with the fight or flight response. Here are two pictures of the heart and lungs, with the dome of the diaphragm below:
When your vagus nerve is relaxed, you are in a state called “rest and digest”. Rest and digest is the metabolic state in which all cellular healing takes place. Breathing is very different during rest and digest than it is during fight or flight, as you might imagine!
breath in a natural resting state
In our natural resting state, an inhale pushes our diaphragm down into our abdomen. You can see and feel your belly expand and grow bigger as you inhale with your diaphragm soft. As you exhale, your diaphragm will release back up toward your heart and lungs, pressing air out, and your belly will flatten toward your spine.
Chronic anxiety can reverse this basic breathing pattern. With clients I often see bellies pulling in with an inhale, leaving only the chest to expand and make room for air. If this is happening to you, your diaphragm is not moving, and chances are you are stuck in fight or flight. Learning to relax your diaphragm can help reset and relax your entire nervous system.
practicing Diaphragmatic breathing
This simple exercise speaks directly to your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve has to choose - stress, or rest. It can’t choose both. This gives us tremendous power. By practicing diaphragmatic breathing regularly, you train your vagus nerve to choose a resting, healing state as your baseline.
To practice retraining your diaphragm, get cozy, and put your hands over your belly. Take slow, deep breaths, and unashamedly grow a giant pot belly under your hands with each inhale. (Sometimes it’s body image stress that locks up this lovely muscle.) Play with this until it feels more and more natural. You will notice your whole system following your breath toward relaxation.
As it gets easier, you can practice in more stressful situations. Try it while talking to a Lyme illiterate doctor! Try it while telling the truth of your own story, whatever that may be. It is such a simple, profoundly grounding practice. It is a form of meditation.
Heart rate, digestion and peaceful living
When your diaphragm is moving smoothly and naturally with your breath, it is a beautiful support system for your heart, lungs and digestive system. The easy movement of your diaphragm lowers your heart rate, improves digestion, and acts as an internal massage for these organs with every breath you take. Diaphragmatic breathing moves our organs against each other, encouraging them to become smoother, softer and more fluid. Just think of a little puppy sleeping, how its belly is the softest, gentlest thing on earth. That’s our natural, peaceful, resting state. That’s what healing feels like.
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If you need more help changing chronic anxiety patterns, try this Anxiety Relief meditation. It guides you to visualize your vagus nerve as the link between your limbic system and your digestion. It is my go-to if Lyme disease insomnia rears its ugly head, or if I am facing a particularly stressful event - say, turning on the TV at news hour.
Bliss is your birthright. You are powerful, your heart is a song.