Sunday, August 14, 2016

#145 out of a thousand ways to have a happy artist's life - Work on your "vagal tone" with art

 "Abide"  collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.

There's a wonderful blog post from  Feb 02, 2013 Psychology Today by Christopher Bergland, The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure; 8 habits that stimulate your vagus nerve and keep you calm, cool, and collected".  It's all about engaging our vagus nerve at times of stress.   Christopher describes releasing Vagusstuff, a a natural tranquilizer that we can self-administer, by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales. This is just one simple way of many that we can consciously tap the power of our vagus nerve to create inner-calm on demand. This knowledge alone should be enough to reduce the fear-of-fear-itself and give us "grace under pressure" next time we need it.  The post is a great little read with so much usable information for when life gets stressful.
He also has his 8 habits that stimulate the vagus nerve, so I thought create a little art based on these 8 habits and see how I feel.  Not surprisingly, the result made me quite happy.
1. His first habit is to visualize his vagus nerve, to actually see the lacy winding map of this amazing nerve and he includes a lovely drawing to help us with this visualization.  He imagines asking his vagus for assistance, even.  I like the idea but of course I want to create a character that gives me that feeling of calm, something that I can enjoy working with in my art a little more than his lacy drawing, some inner higher being that I might imagine asking for help from in times of stress. (See above)

2. His second habit is practice. He has power written elsewhere that our cerebellum can store muscle memory and allow us to perform gracefully under pressure. Getting the cerebellum run the show with the vagus nerve helps us create fluidity in our thoughts and actions. This goes well with a daily art practice.  Add in a little restorative yoga before art making and I think I'm practicing this one, daily.

3. His third habit is creating flow by balancing skill and challenge. He suggests we get in the habit of continually nudging against our limits. By increasing the challenge gradually you become more skilled and comfortable with more difficult tasks.  Again, this is easy with art making, always learning something new, trying new things, working with accidents.  It's all helpful and flow inducing.

4. Reframe priorites and values. This one is pretty neat.  He bases it on some research that Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford University, conducted in  2006. He asked students to write a paragraph about a topic unrelated to an upcoming exam that was inducing stress such as: “relationships with friends and family,” “religious values,” “athletic ability,” and “being good at art” before the exam. This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of students.
So of course before we face any challenge that fills us with anxiety, we can create a little art about what matters most.  Even when the stakes are high, remember that every hurdle is an opportunity to learn. Mastery is a process.

5. Use neuroplasticity to re-wire habits of positive thinking.  We can generate positive emotions and learned optimism in our art making practice that will give us grace under pressure. The vagus nerve picks up on signals coming from the 'top-down' and from the 'bottom-up' and uses these signals to re-wire our minds through neuroplasticity.
Dr. Dawson at the University of Glasgow in Scotland: "Evidence from animal studies suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could cause the release of neurotransmitters which help facilitate neural plasticity and help people re-learn how to use their arms after stroke, particularly if stimulation is paired with specific tasks.”  Interesting!

6. His sixth habit is to seek out ways to create daily physicality.  For example cardio-respiratory activity, strength training and yoga stimulate vagal tone and  harmonize hormones and neurotransmitters linked to grace under pressure.  So once again, a little yoga before art making and I have this one covered.

7. His seventh habit is interesting.  Anxiety is contagious: Avoid anxious people. Christopher described how his father, a neurosurgeon, needed to have a lot of grace under pressure. He understood how delicate the sensors of his own vagus nerve were and would ask anyone in the operating room to leave if he or she was emitting too much anxiety.  If these anxious people cannot be avoided he recommends using headphones with music that creates an appropriate mood and blocks the ability of others' anxiety to affect your vagal tone. So when we are involved in our art making we can also listen to this sort of music and this will add layers of association and help the vagal tone as well.

8. His eighth habit may be the best.  Foster loving kindness. He feels that in order to maintain healthy vagal tone it’s important to foster diverse and rewarding social connections. In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Kok of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focused their attention on the vagus nerve.
Their article was titled: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.They discovered that a high vagal tone index was part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health and positive social connections.
In the experiment Frederickson and Kok used a Loving-Kindness Meditation technique to help participants become better at self-generating positive emotions. However, they also found that simply reflecting on positive social connections and working to improve them also caused improvements in vagal tone.  So include a little loving kindness in our art making and see how that feels.  Guaranteed to support the vagus nerve.

So my #145 way to have a happy artist's life is to engage and stimulate my vagus nerve as much as possible, while creating my daily art practice.   Try it and let me know how it works for you!


Gena Lumbroso said...

Lani, thank you; you always have such a great ideas! Love how you have drawn so much together here ;)

Lani Gerity said...

Thank YOU, Gena!

Merrikate said...

Awesome article and application of its ideas, Lani -- thanks so much. Have shared the article onwards, too, with a community of people learning self-compassion to help cope with chronic health challenges. So enjoy the author's recommendations' adaptability to any endeavour!
Yup, am now deliberately befriending my Vagus Nerve so we can be best buddies. ~ Kit W-P

Bill said...

I suffer from an ailment called vasovagal syncope. This is a fascinating post. I'm going to save it as a pdf so I may read it whenever needed! :-)
The vagus nerve can cause all kinds of horrible problems when it is affected in the wrong way.

basia said...

Enjoyable article, Lani. I will practice, inviting my vagus nerve to help me to relax.