“This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.” -Dr. Abraham Erskine to Steve Rogers (aka Captain America)
When I was growing up my favorite superhero was Captain America. I loved his power, his strength, his speed, his uniform, and boy oh boy I loved that shield of his. I wanted one. And while I didn’t get a Cap shield as a kid, I did get a Cap t-shirt. And I gotta tell you, I cherished that t-shirt.
But it wasn’t until I saw ‘The First Avenger’ that I began to understand what Captain America’s real superpower was. It was his compassion. Because Steve Rogers, before he became Captain America, wasn’t big or strong. Most people thought he was just a weakling. But Steve Rogers had a big heart. He had compassion. And Rogers’ compassion was why Dr. Erskine chose him to be Captain America. Compassion was Cap’s Original Strength. Compassion was the foundation for all of Cap’s superpowers. And it turns out there’s a physiological reason for it. Now that may sound crazy, but please hear me out.
You see each of us has a nerve in our bodies that some researchers have nicknamed the ‘Nerve of Compassion’. This nerve is the tenth (X) cranial nerve, the vagus nerve. It is a crazy looking, big ole nerve that wanders down from our brains into our hearts and into our viscera. (In fact, vagus is the Latin word for wanderer.) And the vagus nerve plays a huge role in our ability to not only survive but to thrive.
The vagus nerve meanders down from our brains and around the muscles of our necks wiring into the muscles that allow us to do things like hum, speak and swallow. It has a relationship with cranial nerve (XI) which helps us nod our heads. It helps us align our gaze and allows for facial expressions. It connects our hearts and diaphragms, synchronizing heart and respiration rates. It connects into the organs of digestion. It networks our brains with our hearts and with our guts. It networks with other nerves to get stuff done. It picks up vital intel from our bodies, delivers it to command central (our brains), and then communicates command central’s tactical directives to the appropriate team members of our bodies. It wires into glands that produce anti-stress enzymes and hormones (like acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, oxytocin). It stimulates areas of the brain that regulate both emotion and cognition. It also plays a key role in regulating inflammation in the body. The vagus nerve does all this and more. It’s ability to function properly is integral to our health. In fact, scientists are currently researching ways to work with the vagus nerve to develop treatments for a wide variety of diseases.
So how does compassion fit in?
Compassion could be viewed as a way of pressing reset for the vagus nerve. And it’s a bit of a circular reset. It’s a feedback loop. Compassion stimulates the vagus. The vagus being the oxytocin superhighway then starts the delivery of oxytocin which results in feelings of calm, closeness, and connection. Loving touch; parent/child, significant others, friends, and even dogs and cats, can stimulate the vagus nerve. Smiling as well as someone smiling at you also has a positive effect on the vagus nerve.
Compassion turns on the vagal parasympathetics (rest/digest) of the nervous system. This creates a cascade of healthy effects in the body. For example; it optimizes heart rate, keeps inflammation in check, and promotes positive social interactions. Compassion towards self and compassion towards others begats more compassion. Greater compassion leads to higher vagal tone. And high vagal tone equates to resilience. Having high vagal tone makes a person a ‘Vagal Superstar’, a term coined by Professor Dacher Keltner. And in my opinion, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) was a ‘Vagal Superstar’.
And you can be a ‘Vagal Superstar’ too. Here are some ideas on how to strengthen your Vagal Superpowers (i.e. increase your vagal tone):
Practicing Compassion is a great place to start. Smile more. Speak words of encouragement. Use words to build up not tear down. Be kind whenever possible (and it’s always possible.)
There’s a lot of power in gratitude. So don’t forget to be grateful. And don’t forget to share with others what you appreciate about them.
Share a smile. Hug a friend. Connect.
Lend a helping hand to someone.
Eat healthy and nourishing foods. If your belly is unhappy with what you’re putting into it then your vagus nerve will be unhappy too.
Allow room for curiosity, wonder, and awe in your life.
Hum and sing.
Treat your body to good quality exercise each day. For example: go for a walk, pick up heavy things and put them down, do yoga, dance in your underwear, play basketball, skip, roll around on the ground, play on the monkey bars, go for a run, etc.
Now as this is an Original Strength blog it probably won’t surprise you that I’m going to connect all this Vagal Superpowerness to Original Strength. Please allow me to share some reasons why I believe Pressing Reset with Original Strength may help serve you in becoming a ‘Vagal Superstar’ or better yet, a ‘Vagal Superhero’. Here is a partial list:
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the key resets in Original Strength. In fact, it can be considered a reset within a reset. The vagus nerve really, really likes this style of breathing.
Restoring head control via the OS reset of head nods can help take pressure off the vagus nerve. Head nods can also help restore the body’s sense of balance.
Rolling is another reset in OS. When you need a hug and nobody’s around to give you one, you can ‘self hug’. By rolling around on the ground you can stimulate receptors in the skin that release hormones like oxytocin. Now a ‘self hug’ is not quite the same as a hug from a good friend, but it’s a way to show yourself some love. The vagus likes love. And rolling OS style feels so good!
Rocking, another OS reset, is soothing to the nervous system. Just think about how rocking can lull a crying baby as well as why we have rocking chairs. Rocking feels good. It can take us out of neurological high alert status and into rest/digest/chill status. And as the vagus is a part of the nervous system, it’s bound to like chilling with out rocking.
Crawling is another reset in OS. Crawling is a gait pattern. This contralateral limb movement gets both hemispheres of the brain talking together. Crawling allows for better neural connectivity which enhances focus and attention. Sounds like a calm mind, yes? And the vagus relates well with a calm mind.
And finally, in the Original Strength System, smiling is considered a reset. OS greatly encourages smiling while breathing, rolling, rocking, and crawling. Smiling generates feelings of goodwill. The vagus really likes goodwill.
Now you have many of the secrets to being a ‘Vagal Superhero’. The most important one being compassion. After all, compassion was the key to Steve Rogers transformation into Captain America. And compassion also played a pivotal role in the making of another superhero, Iron Man. Because without the compassion and kindness Tony Stark received from Yinsen, Stark would have died from his shrapnel injuries. And had Yinsen not laid down his life for Stark in the battle against the Ten Rings, there would be no Iron Man. Compassion is Original Strength.
Are you ready to Press Reset to become a ‘Vagal Superhero’?
If so, Avengers assemble!
Captain America Goes Vagus first appeared as a blog on the Original Strength website here