For some of us, the holidays are a time when we get to experience this lovey, gooey feeling in abundance. However, sometimes they bring up the flip side of that feeling. Grief and resentment knock at our door as we face potential family dynamics, missing loved ones who cannot be with us, and we are confronted with all the things we wish were different.
For me, they are a mixture of both. There are moments where I am bathed in the beauty of the lights, surrounded by my favorite people but also reminded of loved ones I cannot be with, and love that I wish was differently available. The ways in which the people in my life did not have the capacity or the tools to love me the way I prefer becomes glaringly obvious and I find myself spending more time in anxiety and resentment than presence and joy. When the flip side presents itself and I notice it, I am longing for “that loving feeling” and longing to experience the gooey, tingley, glowy love.
Love and the Attachment Nervous System
Those gooey feelings, they’re not a mystery. They’re part of something called your attachment nervous system, also sometimes called your polyvagal nervous system or your vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve creates things like empathy, the yawn response, and even sweaty fear hands. The vagus nerve (formerly known as the 10th cranial nerve) is a cluster of nerves that runs from the top of our heads to the bottom of our pelvic floor. It has two sections, ventral and dorsal, which make up the cluster of nerves known as the polyvagal nervous system or attachment nervous system. This cluster of nerves is one of the longest nerves in our body and it is the key to accessing safety and gooey love feelings in our body.
So often, we think, if I can just shift something externally (the situation, this other person’s behavior, how much money I have) then I will be able to relax, feel safe, and access connection. Our attachment nervous system respectfully disagrees. The level of security we feel in a relationship is determined by the organization of the two sections of the vagus nerve, dorsal and ventral. We can lean into more security in relationships by practicing things like the exercise below. Therefore, we actually have more power over our ability to chill out than we think we do. Maybe I don’t need the dishes to be clean immediately after all?
How the Vagus Nerve Activates Responses in the Body
The dorsal piece of our vagus nerve is associated with cold, freeze, numb responses. You know, the one that activates when your in-laws make their annual comment on your housekeeping abilities or ask that pesky question about your financial structures. If you are imagining this scenario in your mind right now, maybe take notice of your fingertips or your heart rate as an example of how the vagus nerve activates responses in the body.
The ventral part of the vagus nerve is associated with warmth and connection. Being in the front of the nerve cluster, it activates that heart water that spills out of your eyes when you are looking into the eyes of your dog, grandmother, partner, or best friend, and you cannot imagine how you could love anything more. Seriously, I am tearing up just writing about it.
For more information about polyvagal theory, the attachment nervous system, or the vagus nerve, reference the work of Dr. Peter Levine and Stephen Porges both of whom have written extensively on the subject.
Bring Sweetness Into Your Life
This is the season of Vata. The cold, dry season is setting in and making us all want to slow down, tend and rest. It’s the time to focus on all things warm and gooey and begin to incorporate sweetness and security into our lives in new ways.
Here is an exercise that will assist you with tapping into the security available in your body, even if those gooey moments feel few and far between.
- Think of someone or some being in your life that is always happy to see you, thinks everything you do is awesome, is always proud of you, and welcomes you with affection into their life. It may be a pet, a departed family member, or even a character you saw on tv.
- Take a moment to get comfy and see if you can call up every detail about them possible. Recall what it’s like to smell them, touch them, be near them. Recall their voice, the way they talk to and refer to you. Ask yourself what they look like as they are loving you in some way? Maybe Grandma always had a sparkle in her eye when she put the cookie plate down in front of you. Maybe Rufus gets especially excited when it’s time for snuggles on the couch. Maybe your spouse opens their heart to you when you’ve had a bad day.
- Allow your body to take in every detail of this imagined interaction and notice if/how the feelings in your chest and eyes shift.
- Imagine you are breathing in their presence. Maybe even take a look around the room and decide a physical location to place their imagined presence. Maybe they are sitting next to you and you can feel their warmth next to you on the couch or chair. Perhaps they are behind you with their hands on your shoulders and you can feel their love radiating into your shoulders and neck.
- Notice what happens to the rest of your body. Your breathing may slow, you may feel a rumble in your belly, your shoulders and jaw may drop into a more relaxed position. You are experiencing your vagus nerve tapping into your inner security and safety.
Next time you’re at a tense dinner table or fighting about which Channakuh candle comes first, see if you can call up this person and your memory of them. Remember you are loved in the world, even if only for that moment and in your imagination. I’ll meet you in this imaginary space.
Create space for joy and appreciation this season with Journey to Gratitude, a five-part series with Devi Brown, available now in the Chopra App.