Vagal Tone & Meditation Perspectives on COVID-19 & Immunity

Apr 10, 2020

 One of the guiding principles explored in the Contemplative Studies Program is that we have agency. In the face of adversity we can become empowered to consciously direct our evolution towards more favourable outcomes.

What follows is an instalment in a series of assignments taken on by CSP members. Students were asked to research pandemic related subjects including economics, health and lifestyle. The purpose of the task was to engage critical reasoning in the midst of a barrage of sensational headlines and form an action plan. In a crisis, having a plan and keeping moving is critical to mental health.

This information is provided to deliver you things you should know, and things can do during the pandemic.

Five Things to Know

  1. Strengthening vagal tone is important because it will help your body reach homeostasis (its balanced resting state) much more quickly after a stressful experience. If our sympathetic nervous system works in overdrive due to ongoing stress and low vagal tone, we end up with elevated cortisol levels and a weakened immune system making us more vulnerable to illness. Therefore, we want to increase our capacity to easily switch back into a resting state after a stressor.
  2. There are several ways to strengthen vagal tone, some of which have already been recommended in this document (like eating a healthy diet, yoga asana (physical postures), and pranayama (breathing practices)), as well as several others listed below.
  3. The ventral vagal complex (VVC) or “smart vagal nerve” is the most evolved branch of the parasympathetic nervous system, and it is involved in social communication and the social engagement system. It is a complex network consisting of fast, myelinated neurons that dictate our heart rate, breathing, facial muscles, hearing, and vocalizing. The VVC is active when we feel safe, and it allows us to meaningfully connect with others. It will benefit us if we learn to engage our VVC at will. 
  4. Cold water exposure can help reset the vagal nerve during times of intense sympathetic activation, as well as strengthen vagal tone in general.
  5. Meditation has been shown to improve immune response by reducing inflammatory markers (high levels of which have been correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease), increasing the number of CD-4 cells, which are the helper cells in the immune system involved in the process of fighting infection, and increasing telomerase activity, which can help prevent the growth of cancer cells and premature aging. We know that people with Covid-19 have elevated CRP, which is a marker of inflammation.


Five Things We Can Do

To Strengthen Vagal Tone and Activate the Ventral Vagal Complex
  1. Practice meditation: Mindfulness, body scan, visualization
  2. Look at a friendly, familiar face (or a photo of a friendly, familiar face). Smile! Laugh!
  3. Listen to or use a friendly, gentle, sweet voice
  4. Sing, hum, or chant. OM or another Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan mantra. Try OM MANI PADME HUM and imagine sending vibrations of compassion and healing to the world.
  5. Splash cold water or place a cold towel on your neck. You can also run cold water over your body for the last minute of your shower; best if you can get your head under too.
    Written by

    Erica Saccente

    Irina Viscun


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