Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Vagal - Vocal Connection Part 1... by Leah Grams Johnson

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This is Judy: As a vocal coach, I have become intrigued by the vagus nerve and its connection to the voice. It affects not only laryngeal functions, but the diaphragm, and thus vocal cord and breathing operations. Actually an extensive array of all sorts of bodily functions rely on its nuanced direction. We can help it work better ('increase vagal tone') with certain strategies. I asked my brilliant student/ assistant/ indie artist Leah Grams Johnson, who has been researching and working with a functional medicine physician for her own wellness, to write Part 1 of this series on the voice and the vagus nerve. Her doctor will be writing Part 2.  

Here now is Leah:

As vocalists, our bodies are our instruments. It follows that for the health and longevity of our voices, it is imperative we care for our bodies to the best of our ability.  At an intuitive level, I believe we can be our own healers for certain aspects of our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Vocalists even more so. Here’s why:

At the base of our skull exists the longest and most complex cranial nerve, called the vagus nerve. Picture this nerve like a beautiful climbing rose bush on a fragile bone trellis. It first reaches its delicate tendrils around the face, throat, vocal chords, and neck, then extends down to the heart, lungs, diaphragm, stomach, and intestines. For those of you with more sensitive stomachs, the vagus nerve is like a highway of communication sending signals from the brain, to the gut, and back to the brain— the cause of what we call “gut feelings.” A healthy functioning vagus nerve is said to have a strong “vagal tone.” 

Through indirect stimulation of the nerve, vagal tone can be increased by: 

  • singing or humming, 
  • slow deep diaphragmatic breathing, 
  • meditation, 
  • cold showers or splashing the face with ice water, 
  • and soothing connection (long hugs are like kale for the nervous system). 

How the Vagus rules

This far-reaching nerve plays a lead role in the autonomic nervous system, which consists of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It is
...the prime component of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates the ‘rest-and-digest’ or ‘tend-and-befriend’ responses (while) the sympathetic nervous system drives the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. - Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today 
When our vagus nerve is functioning properly, these two contrasting systems... 
...work in a rhythmic alternation that supports healthy digestion, sleep, and immune system functioning. - Dr. Arielle Shwartz. 
Additionally, the vagus nerve decreases inflammation and lowers blood pressure. A special note on inflammation: many scientists are beginning to consider conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD as forms and byproducts of inflammation. Other inflammatory diseases and conditions that could benefit from stimulation of the vagus nerve include: rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson's, and epilepsy. 
In 2005, the FDA approved the use of vagus nerve stimulation as a treatment for depression. It has also been found to help with the following conditions: rapid cycling bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and Alzheimers Disease” - Stacy Sampson, DO, Medical News Today 

The Vagus nerve's impact on the Voice

The voice is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. I like to think of the voice as a wild animal— separate from the rational mind. It needs to feel safe and un-threatened in order to become muscularly relaxed and vulnerable through expression. Much like a horse, the total voice system (vocal chords, throat, diaphragm, lungs) is subject to the physical “fight-or-flight” effects of the sympathetic nervous system, and benefits from the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system. Remembering this primal function helps me during times of performance anxiety. 
By focusing on what my body needs physiologically to calm its “wild animal” and shift from the sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system, I am more able to remove myself from the emotional storm caused by anxiety, and tame the physical manifestations of fear that inhibit my ability to simply sing. - Leah Grams Johnson

Bottom line: 

Not only does the vagus nerve affect the voice by physically touching the vocal chords, throat, lungs, and diaphragm, it also has a heavy hand in directing the autonomic nervous system. Conversely, the vibration of the vocal chords through singing greatly nourishes this wandering nerve and strengthens vagal tone. 

Within our own bodies, this beautiful symbiotic relationship exists as the vagal-vocal connection, making vocalists all the more adept at becoming our own healers! 

Judy again... Many thanks to my guest poster Leah Grams Johnson for researching and writing this Part 1. 

Leah is a singer-songwriter hailing from the coast of Northern California. Her unique take on Country and Contemporary Folk music has resonated with fans of all musical backgrounds nationwide. She is also an accomplished horsewoman and loves to do yoga!

Stay tuned for PART TWO of the Vagal-Vocal Connection, which will be an in-depth post by Functional Medicine Practitioner, Jackie Warner, regarding ways to reduce chronic stress, balance and nurture the body, and strengthen vagal tone. 

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