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Regulating Your Nervous System With Sound

Updated: Mar 12

Stress and anxiety have become common companions in our fast-paced lives, and learning to manage them is crucial for our well-being. One promising avenue for reducing stress and promoting relaxation lies in the power of sound. Drawing from the groundbreaking research of experts like Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Gabor Maté, and Dr. Peter Levine, we can explore the benefits of using sound, particularly humming and gentle vocalization, to regulate our nervous system and find a sense of calm.

Understanding the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges

Dr. Stephen Porges, a renowned researcher in the field of psychology and neuroscience, introduced the Polyvagal Theory, which revolutionized our understanding of the autonomic nervous system. According to this theory, our autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Within the parasympathetic branch, Dr. Porges identified two distinct systems:

  • Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC): Associated with social engagement, safety, and relaxation.

  • Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC): Linked to immobilization, shutdown, and extreme stress.


How Humming and Vocalization Help

When we engage in activities like humming or gentle vocalization, we initiate a process that promotes relaxation and activates the VVC:

  1. Auditory Stimulation: The soothing vibrations and sounds produced during humming or vocalization create a calming auditory experience that directly affects our nervous system. It can be likened to a gentle massage for our nerves.

  2. Breathing Regulation: Humming and vocalization often involve controlled, rhythmic breathing. This type of breathing is known to regulate heart rate and induce a state of relaxation by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.

  3. Vagus Nerve Stimulation: The vagus nerve, a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, is directly influenced by humming and vocalization. These activities stimulate the vagus nerve, signaling to the brain that it's safe to relax and engage socially.

  4. Social Engagement: Humming and vocalization mimic the sounds we make during social interactions, which may trigger a response in the brain that interprets these actions as signs of safety and connection. As a result, your nervous system shifts from a state of stress (SNS dominance) to relaxation (VVC activation).

Dr. Gabor Maté on Healing and Self-Care

Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-respected physician and author, emphasizes the importance of self-care and self-compassion in healing from stress and trauma. Humming and vocalization can be seen as powerful self-care practices:

  • Self-Soothing: These activities are readily accessible tools for self-soothing. When you find yourself in stressful situations or dealing with emotional turmoil, taking a moment to hum or vocalize can provide a sense of comfort and ease.

  • Creating Safe Spaces: Dr. Maté encourages the creation of mental safe spaces. By associating humming or vocalization with safety, you can mentally return to these practices during moments of stress, helping to regulate your emotions.

Dr. Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing

Dr. Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing approach teaches us to pay attention to bodily sensations and physical experiences as a means of healing trauma and stress. Humming and vocalization can align with this approach:

  • Tracking Sensations: When you engage in humming, you become more aware of the sensations in your body, helping you identify and release tension or discomfort.

  • Emotion Check-In: Humming provides an opportunity to check in with your emotions, acknowledging and processing them through bodily sensations.


Now, let's explore some easy, take-home practices:

  1. Simple Humming Exercise: Find a quiet space, sit comfortably, and take a few deep breaths. Start humming gently, feeling the vibrations in your chest and throat. Focus on the soothing sensation of the sound. You can hum along to your favorite song or simply make a humming sound. Continue for a few minutes, gradually slowing down and allowing yourself to relax.

  2. Vocalization Practice: Similar to humming, try softly vocalizing vowel sounds like "ah" or "oh." Experiment with different pitches and tones until you find what feels most calming to you. This practice can be particularly helpful during moments of anxiety or stress.

  3. Regular Check-Ins: Make a habit of checking in with your emotions and bodily sensations. Take a few minutes each day to sit quietly and pay attention to how you feel physically and emotionally. Use humming or vocalization to process any discomfort or tension you might notice.

 

In our quest to find peace and calm amid life's challenges, the power of sound can be a guiding light.


Drawing from the wisdom of experts like Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Gabor Maté, and Dr. Peter Levine, we've explored the benefits of practices such as humming and gentle vocalization for nervous system regulation. Now, let's delve into the world of mantra practice and how it complements these techniques to foster a deeper sense of inner peace and well-being.


Mantra Meditation: A Time-Tested Practice


Mantra meditation, an ancient practice rooted in various spiritual and cultural traditions, involves the repetition of a specific word, phrase, or sound known as a mantra. This practice is designed to quiet the mind, reduce stress, and promote a profound sense of relaxation. When we consider the principles of the Polyvagal Theory and somatic experiencing, we can see how mantra meditation aligns with these concepts.


How Mantra Meditation Helps Regulate the Nervous System

  1. Auditory Stimulation: Just like humming and vocalization, mantra meditation provides auditory stimulation. The rhythmic repetition of a mantra creates a soothing and harmonious sound that can help regulate the nervous system.

  2. Breathing Synchronization: Mantra meditation often involves coordinating the repetition of the mantra with your breath. This synchronizes your breath and heart rate, promoting relaxation and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

  3. Vagus Nerve Activation: The act of vocalizing a mantra stimulates the vagus nerve, signaling to the brain that it's safe to relax. This activates the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC), creating a sense of calm and safety.

  4. Mindful Engagement: Mantra meditation encourages mindful engagement with the present moment, helping you become more attuned to your bodily sensations and emotions, in line with somatic experiencing practices.

Integration: Humming, Vocalization, and Mantra Meditation

Bringing together humming, vocalization, and mantra meditation can create a powerful synergy for nervous system regulation:

  • Humming and Vocalization: These practices offer quick, accessible tools for self-soothing and emotional processing. Use them as stepping stones to prepare your mind and body for deeper meditative experiences.

  • Mantra Meditation: Incorporating a chosen mantra into your meditation practice adds depth and intention. Select a mantra that resonates with you, whether it's a traditional Sanskrit mantra, a positive affirmation, or a word that embodies peace and serenity.



 

A Simple Practice to Harmonize Your Nervous System

  1. Start with Humming or Vocalization: Find a quiet space, sit comfortably, and take a few deep breaths. Begin by humming or softly vocalizing for a few minutes. This primes your nervous system for meditation.

  2. Mantra Meditation: Transition into mantra meditation. Choose a mantra that speaks to you and repeat it silently or aloud. As you do, focus on the sound and the sensations it generates within you. Maintain a gentle, rhythmic pace.

  3. Mindful Awareness: As you continue your mantra meditation, be mindful of any bodily sensations or emotions that arise. Allow them to surface without judgment, using the mantra as a calming anchor.

  4. Closing Reflection: Allow yourself to be in the silence for a few moments or as long as you like by slowly transitioning back to your natural breath. Take a moment to reflect on how you feel, both physically and emotionally. Notice any shifts in your state of being.

By incorporating humming, vocalization, and mantra meditation into your daily routine, you can tap into the profound benefits of sound-based practices. These techniques offer a holistic approach to nervous system regulation, promoting relaxation, self-awareness, and a deeper connection to your inner calm. As you harmonize your nervous system with sound, you'll discover a path to greater peace and well-being in your life.


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