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Calming Your CNS with Vergence

Photo by Alex Perez via Unsplash

Many folx come into therapy wanting to learn how to move through difficult emotions, cope with triggers, and calm the body. Often times therapists suggest and teach a multitude of different breathing techniques while encouraging movement, exercise, meditation, and mindfulness. All of these things are absolutely helpful, healing, and conducive, yet, they are not the only way to regulate our system.

Vergence is a Brainspotting Therapy technique that helps de-escalate feelings of fear, anxiety, panic, overwhelm, and stress by calming the nervous system through controlled eye movements. In order to understand how and why this works, let's break down the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch responds to cues of danger and triggers the release of adrenaline, which fuels the fight--flight-fawn response. When our body is mobilized by sympathetic arousal, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, our heart rate increases, and we may experience a sense of urgency, anxiety, fear, restlessness, rage, or an intense pull to people please. The world feels scary and dangerous.

The parasympathetic branch is home to the vagus nerve, an incredibly important and powerful cranial nerve in our body. The vagus nerve is divided into two parts: the ventral vagal pathway and the dorsal vagal pathway. The ventral vagal pathway responds to cues of safety and enables feelings of comfort and social connection. When we experience safety and connection, our breathing is deep & rhythmic, we feel grounded & at ease, and we experience an impulse to engage with others.

In contrast, the dorsal vagal pathway responds to cues of extreme danger by activating the freeze response. This response pattern takes us out of connection, out of awareness, and into a protective state of collapse. When the freeze response is activated, we may experience feeling frozen, shut down, numb, spaced out, or dissociated. Our thoughts may be plagued with self-hatred, and we may notice a pull to isolate, shrink, hide, or disappear.

When we intentionally stimulate the vagus nerve when our body is experiencing sympathetic arousal, our nervous system will calm down and eventually return to that safe and social connected place...meaning the ventral vagal pathway is activated. The Vergence technique directly stimulates the vagus nerve as this nerve is connected to the muscles in our eyes.

To practice Vergence, simply hold your finger or a pen in front of your nose 4 to 6 inches and focus your gaze to the tip of the object for two to five seconds. Then, shift your gaze anywhere between one to ten feet in front of the tip of the object. Hold that focus for two to five seconds. Then refocus your gaze on your finger or pen for two to five seconds, and repeat. As you continue to shift your focus from the tip of the object to the further point, you may notice feeling slightly crosseyed. This is normal. Continue this near and far refocusing process for approximately 20 to 60 seconds, and notice how your body calms down.

To see Vergence in action, check out the video below.

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