A Somatic Approach to Mental Health, Part Two

If you have had acupuncture here, you know we love ear points! There are a few popular protocols that are often used during treatments.Two of the most popular protocols are ATP (Auricular Trauma Protocol) and NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association). “Why all the ear points?” You, a stranger on the interwebs, may be wondering. It’s because, internet stranger, the Vagus nerve! The Vagus nerve is one of the longest and most important nerves in the body. It sends information to our brain about how we are perceiving the outside world. The vagus nerve connects to our heart, lungs, digestive organs, kidneys, liver…well it connects to quite a lot actually here this picture should help!

The vagus nerve connects to all of these organs and it determines whether we are in our parasympathetic nervous system or our sympathetic nervous system. We more commonly hear of these as “fight or flight” versus “rest and digest.” Almost everything in our society is created to put us in fight or flight. No, seriously! It’s unfortunate yet amazing how many things purposefully stimulate fight or flight. Caffeine (I’m not hating. I LOVE my morning cup of coffee), driving, most pop music, most shows and movies, whether the suspense is fear based (maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or cringe humor (The Office). These shows change our breathing and heart rate while pumping out stress hormones. All of these things put us on edge and lead to irritability whether we realize it or not. Maybe we just think it is a part of our personalities at this point, but, nope, we were meant to be chill, easy going creatures with the capacity to laugh and enjoy life.

When we are in fight or flight our body determines certain things are important and other things are not vital; anything not directly related to our immediate survival is not vital. Making new red blood cells, nope not important right now! What about creating enzymes to break apart proteins for the body to absorb, no way bud! Right now we need shallow rapid breathing and a heart pounding! We need blood going to your big muscles that move us and protect us, not to your cold fingers and toes.This is fight or flight, this is your sympathetic nervous system running the show. One way we can pull ourselves out of this is to take deep belly breaths. As our bellies expand with each inhale and as we slow our exhales to longer than our inhales we are sending a message to our brain that we are safe. 

But how does all of this tie into most acupuncturists’ obsession with ear points? Easy! There is an auricular branch of the vagus nerve and it comes up into the cavum concha of the ear. This gives direct access to our vagus nerve which controls so many of our bodily functions. When we are in fear the teeny tiny muscles of our ears tense trying to absorb more sounds to help determine if we are safe. Putting a tiny little needle in there relaxes the muscles, the relaxed muscles tells the vagus nerve you are in a safe location and all organ systems should proceed with their healthy normal functions. The trick is to constantly find ways to send this message to your brain. We have to trample healthy pathways through the brain over and over again to override the pathways created by ptsd, depression, or anxiety. The more times we choose the path of relaxation the easier the trail is to take. The first few times we may experience resistance, but overtime we easily stroll to a state of rest and digest with the parasympathetic nervous system running the show. 

by Kelsey Rumfello

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