Karen Baker
by Karen Baker, Graduate Counseling Intern, Supervised by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Member, Content Contributor

Regulating Our Stress Response During Recovery

Hi. My name is Karen, and I am the graduate counseling intern at Crossroad Counseling Associates. My work is supervised by Rick Reynolds, and I am in the home stretch of my master's program. I've learned so much this past year and had the opportunity to co-facilitate several Harboring Hope Groups. Today, I am delighted to share some information with you on a topic I am deeply passionate about and teach many of my own clients: Emotional Regulation. Emotional regulation or self-regulation is the ability to observe and respond to a range of emotions in a manner that is tolerable and flexible enough to allow for spontaneous reactions as well as the decision to delay those spontaneous reactions.

I have been teaching people breathing, meditation, and emotional regulation techniques now for over a decade through my work as a yoga instructor. The additional knowledge I've acquired through my master's in counseling program has been an invaluable addition.

My entire world shattered when I discovered my partner had been unfaithful to me. I could hardly go through my day without weeping. I screamed at other cars in traffic. I even raged at a soup can that fell on top of my favorite chips in the grocery cart. My world had blown up, nothing made sense, everything I knew was a lie, and my confidence was nonexistent. My whole being was dysregulated, and understandably so. Like many of you, I experienced betrayal trauma.

Recovering from betrayal trauma took lots of time and effort, but time with my therapist, the support of friends and family, and emotional regulation exercises made a huge difference in not only being able to function, but also in managing the triggers that never existed before. I've found that it's essential to practice these exercises when you feel settled or grounded. That way, you can comfortably use them when you become triggered. You wouldn't expect to complete a triathlon without any training, would you? In the same way, practicing these exercises when you are more grounded will help you recognize and deal with your moments of dysregulation.

You don't have to do this alone! Join other betrayed mates on the path to healing with our life-changing Harboring Hope online course. With Harboring Hope, learn how to weather the pitfalls and hardships following infidelity and start a better, brighter chapter. Registration opens today at Noon CT.

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Why are emotional regulation exercises helpful? First, let me just say that you don't have to be familiar with yoga to believe in these exercises. It just happens to be my background and one of my passions as a therapist. I want to help you understand how they work and why they are important. Emotional Regulation exercises help us "tone the vagus nerve." Playing a significant role in regulating our response to stress, the vagus nerve has also been called the "wandering nerve" or the "soul nerve." The majority of this nerve goes through your gut, which has many million neurons, even more than your spinal cord! This explains why we sense so many things in our gut—hence why some call the gut our "second brain." The vagus nerve, also known as the gut-brain axis, connects the brain to various organs in the body, connecting your throat, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidney, and gut.1

New York Times bestselling author, Resmaa Menakem, puts it this way:

We do know that the soul nerve is where we experience a felt sense of love, compassion, fear, grief, dread, sadness, loneliness, hope, empathy, anxiety, caring, disgust, despair, and many other things that make us human. When your body has an emotional response, such as when your stomach clenches, your voice catches, your pulse races, your shoulders tighten, your breathing quickens, your body braces for impact, or you have a sense that danger is lurking, that's your soul nerve at work. When you feel your heart opening or closing down; when you feel anxious in the pit of your stomach; when you sense that something wonderful or terrible is about to happen; when something feels right or wrong in your gut; when your heart sinks; when your spirit soars; or when your stomach turns in nausea—all of these involve your soul nerve.2

I felt hollow after I discovered my partner's betrayal. This wasn't me being melodramatic, my anxiety and heartbreak came with visceral sensations. This was the vagus nerve and all those neurons in my body taking in information from the world around me and reacting to the trauma of being betrayed.

Without getting too technical, the vagus nerve has two branches: the dorsal vagal branch and the ventral vagal branch. The dorsal vagal branch (part of the Sympathetic Nervous System) governs your "fight, flight, or freeze" response, which is the body's response to extreme or perceived stress or danger. When we become triggered, it is this part of our nervous system that comes online and tells us that we are in danger. The ventral vagal branch (part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System) governs your "rest and digest" response, which helps us to feel calm and relaxed. By activating the vagus nerve, we can better control our responses to the triggers, ultimately helping us feel more calm and grounded. Having a "highly toned" vagus nerve means the autonomic nervous system is regulating stress responses effectively. Many live with the alternative which is a constant state of hypervigilance or restlessness.

So, the question remains: How do we tone the vagus nerve? Here are seven emotional regulation techniques you can start that will help tone your vagus nerve. Take what works for you and leave what doesn't; there is no pressure or expectation that all of these exercises will fit for you.

These first four practices all incorporate the muscles around your throat, the same place the vagus nerve runs through to get to the gut. By intentionally activating these muscles, we will tone the vagus nerve.

  1. Gargle: This might be surprising, but gargling stimulates the vagus nerve by activating the muscles at the back of the throat. Try keeping a cup beside the bathroom sink and gargle water vigorously twice a day, ideally when you brush your teeth.
  2. Laugh: Laughing is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve. Before you say it, I will. It's hard to laugh when your world is shattered in a million pieces. I understand. You may doubt if it is ever possible to laugh again, but I encourage you to try to set aside time to watch a funny movie, spend time with friends who make you laugh, or if nothing else, watch funny cat videos on YouTube!
  3. Hum, chant, or sing: The vagus nerve delivers signaling to the muscles of the larynx around the vocal cords. Humming, chanting, or singing activates the laryngeal muscles and the vocal cords, which then stimulate the motor fibers of the vagus nerve. Put on some of your favorite music and sing along as softly or as loudly as you want. Maybe even pick a song that comforts your spirit or empowers your soul. If you choose to chant, try using the word "om" or "amen," holding the vibration of the "m" sound for as long as you can while stretching out the exhale.
  4. Deep Breathing Exercises: The breath is how we connect to our body. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Breathe deeply through your nose for five to seven seconds, inflating just your belly and chest. Hold each breath in for two to three seconds. Exhale slowly through your mouth for six to eight seconds, allowing the belly and chest to slowly fall. Hold each breath out for two to three seconds. This deep breathing stimulates the pressure receptors in the neck, gut, and heart that signal the brain that it's time to rest and digest. An important thing to note here is that it is the long slow exhale that helps tone the vagus nerve.
  5. Exercise: Regular exercise is an excellent way to regulate the vagus nerve and manage stress. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural stress-relievers. Remember, all exercise counts! A short walk or even a few minutes of stretching can help to promote relaxation, take care of your body, increase your levels of serotonin and endorphins, and reduce stress levels. Yoga is a great choice if you've never tried it because it incorporates both exercise and meditation/breathing.
  6. Cold Exposure: Exposure to cold temperatures, such as taking a cold shower or swimming in cold water, has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. This is because the body responds to the cold by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn activates the vagus nerve. At the end of your normal shower, reduce the water temperature as much as you can bear and let the water wash over your head and the back of your neck. Begin with thirty seconds and gradually work your way up to a few minutes. While standing under the cold shower, work on controlling your breath by taking as many deep belly-breaths as possible. Does this sound like torture? Just try it once. See if you can do it!
  7. Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness and meditation are both excellent ways to calm your mind and tone the vagus nerve. Find a quiet place to sit comfortably and focus on your breath. Whenever your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to your breath. I will not tell you how long to meditate, do what feels comfortable for you. I could tell some of you to start with five minutes and you'd say that's too long, others might say that's not long enough. It is your meditation practice so do what works for you. I'm planning some videos in which I will lead some guided meditations for you to follow. In the meantime, there are also several meditation apps available in the app store for free if you need something to guide you.

Learning to tone the vagus nerve through emotional regulation can help us recognize when we become triggered and get us out of a state of dysregulation. Deep breathing, meditation, laughter, singing, humming, gargling, cold exposure, and exercise are all effective ways to tone the vagus nerve. Remember, take what works for you and leave what doesn't. It is not an exaggeration to say that experiencing betrayal trauma can feel like your life is completely ruined. And recovering from betrayal trauma is an exhausting journey. Be patient with yourself. You are doing the very best you can.

Now I want to lead through a short, guided meditation…So find yourself a comfortable position, laying down or seated. I invite you to close your eyes, but you don't have to. Imagine you are a bright light floating in space amongst the stars. In your mind's eye, see Earth slowly turning below you. Breathe in as you watch the Earth rotate beneath you. Exhale slowly, watching all of the continents and oceans drift by. Slowly start to peacefully descend until the country you are in comes into view. Continue your descent until you are looking over your home state. Inhaling, you take in all the colors of nature, the deep greens in the forests and hills and all the shades of blue of the different bodies of water. As you exhale, slowly start your descent to whatever city you are in right now, noticing the city scape and innovation all around you. Continue your slow descent until you are looking over the building you are in. Descend even further until you are viewing yourself. Slowly and steadily keep dropping until you see yourself in full detail. Observe with kindness and compassion your posture, the movements you make, the gentle rise and fall of your chest, the clothing you wear. Slowly and gently drift into your body. As you do, inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of the seat beneath you, noticing how it supports your back. Breathe in and start to wiggle your fingers and toes, exhale, and roll out your fingers and toes. When you are ready, slowly open your eyes. Enjoy how relaxed you feel and know that you have just exercised your vagus nerve.

Registration for Harboring Hope opens today at Noon CT.

"I just completed the Harboring Hope program. My husband was unfaithful to me emotionally, physically and sexually with a co-worker. What I wished I would've known is that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. People who refuse to forgive can never live their own lives, they are too busy obsessing about the life of the one who hurt them. They are stuck. They are unable to enjoy friends, family or even their children. They imprison themselves in a bondage of their own making. I definitely recommend the Harboring Hope program as a support for healing. To be in a safe community with other women who know what you're going through and how you're feeling is comforting. Whether you're able to reconcile or not, there is hope." - M., Michigan | HH Participant, April 2021.

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Karen's Vlog

Glad to have you vlogging here, Karen. Your sharing is most helpful. It is wonderful to have actually action steps to make this recovery undertaking more concrete and do-able. Thank you!

Lion's Breath in Yoga

Lion's breath relieves tension and stress by stretching your entire face, including the jaw and tongue. Lion's breath will feel silly; it will introduce some ease and remind you not to take yoga too seriously. If you are getting overheated, try this breath to blow off some steam.

Pranayama is a yogic practice that revolves around different breathing exercises. For all the time we spend stretching every other part of the body in yoga, it's remarkably rare to spend much time on the face, as lion's breath does.

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