Why Do Other People's Moods Have Such an Effect on Us?
Co-reguation, the vagus nerve & whole body mental health
This short newsletter talks about how are moods are linked to the people around us through co-regulation and the vagus nerve. The idea is that our mental health is more complicated than just what is going on in our brains (everything is connected) and how we can use exercises to reset our bodies and refresh our mind-body connection.
This past week has been a total cluster of unpredictability. I like to think that I have control of things, but life sends so many reminders that control is such an illusion. We ended up canceling our trip to Minneapolis (after M got sick). It was my birthday - I turned 39. My sister showed up at my doorstep on my birthday. Her personhood was a gift beyond anything I could ask for. And yet, we were all sad, stressed, and scared. Asking ourselves if what we long for is to be together, why can’t we just be happy? Overall, this birthday was a shit show. My dad got a parking ticket, and he then missed his flight (he insisted on taking public transit, but then got lost, etc). Josh was tense (he doesn’t do well with chaos and there is always chaos when two toddlers are around) and M had one of her projectile vomits but missed the sink and soaked us both. I didn’t have time for a shower (Josh had to work) and went to bed covered in dry, crusted food bits scattered across my body. Needlessly to say, if you would have walked into the room, you would have felt the intensity of energy.
I want to talk about how our energy affects the people around us in profound ways that are really hard to have conscious control over. I guess this is called co-regulation. Or the idea that our emotional systems are constantly being affected by the people around us. We are adjusting and readjusting to our partner, thus the “co”. We are both regulators and being regulated throughout all our interactions.
Both of which are shockingly new to me. I feel like I must have heard about these things millions of times and only recently because Kate gave me some vagus nerve oil did I purposely look it up. I am kinda obsessed with anything Kate-related. Suddenly, the whole world was speaking to me about this nerve and its powers. LITERALLY, everyone was already talking about it. I picked my mom up from the airport and she mentioned the vagus nerve and she has been talking about co-regulation for years (apparently I am a bad listener). Or maybe I just selectively listen because she is my mom?
If like me, you live under a rock and are a poor listener at best, or just have never been exposed to the vagus nerve, it is a nerve that connects and shares information around your body - in the most basic sense, from your gut to your brain.
The vagus nerve seems to be the main way in which the brain is getting an understanding of the internal conditions of the body, in order to interpret that and then to make a decision about a behavior. So it’s this constant taking into account of the information that’s happening inside the body, largely unconsciously, to make a decision about what you should do next.
And the reason that that’s so important, I think, is about understanding that relationship between that and our emotionality, because our emotionality is anchored in our bodies. And part of that is going to be about what your body is telling your brain about how the situational, the contextual information is being perceived and understood. -Kimberley Wilson
You have probably heard of people talking about how related our mental states are to our guts? This is the nerve that connects the two (along with the amygdala). It also is responsible for our fight or flight response. And so much more. From what I understand, it is also a communicator to other people - it picks up on the energy or perceived threat level in other people and translates that energy to your brain - most of the time in our unconscious.
I think, from how I understand this, the vagus nerve is kinda like an extra set of senses - one sensing how your gut is doing along with other internal workings and the other picking up on other people’s nervous states. Taking that information and moving it around your body. Also, connecting your energy (calm, happy, sad, tired, scared, etc) to people around you. This makes me think about how herds move. All mammals have this vagus nerve. One senses danger and the others are all running before they know what from.
If you were to take energy read from the room you are in right now, what would it be? If you scanned the room for people and their energy and then inside your own body - where would you put yourself? I am calm. I am alone in a room with some sunlight coming through and a lukewarm coffee within reach. A very different situation from what it would be like if I was sitting one floor below me - in my partner’s office. He is stressed today. For lots of reasons. There would be no way that I could sit there and not be stressed.
So I started reading the book, “The Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve” by Stanley Rosenberg - and it is a lot of information. And I am not totally sold on it - but I find the whole thing really really interesting. Stanley Rosenberg outlines some somewhat straightforward exercises to open the flow of information from your body to your brain. Here is a video of The Basic Exercise:
Lie on back
Interweave fingers on both hands and place behind head
Without turning your head, look to the right
Remain here until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
Return to the neutral state with head and eyes straight
Repeat on the other side
This exercise helps you tap into the “direct neurological connection between the eight suboccipital muscles and the muscles that move our eyeballs.” If you do this, a few times a day/week/regularly, you might feel less stressed.
The other thing that is said beyond a healthy diet, yoga, and movement to really help with emotional regulation and resetting your vagus nerve is breathwork. I am super curious about what this even means.
This week, I am interviewing Alex Elle. Alex Elle is an author, certified breathwork coach, and Restorative Writing teacher living in Maryland with her family.
Writing came into her life by way of therapy and the exploration of healing through journaling and mindfulness. The intention behind Alex’s work is to build community & self-care practices through literature & language.
Alex teaches workshops, courses, and retreats to assist others in finding their voices and create clarity in their lives & relationships.
I am going to ask her about the vagus nerve, using breathwork to regulate our bodies and perhaps have some control over what is going on beneath the surface of our comprehension.
The more I understand the term mental health, the more I feel like it is misleading. For some time now, I have been feeling that the term really limits the modalities to heal with the focus on the brain which is separate from the body. Everything is so interlinked. Our bodies and minds are frighteningly complicated but at the same time, with this expansive understanding, this whole body mental health approach offers at its core possibilities of wellbeing that I long for. For feeling whole. And I find that appealing.