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3d word SOCHI 2014The lead up to the Winter Olympics was marred by fears of terrorism. Security measures threatened to stifle the games traditional atmosphere of congeniality and good sportsmanship.

But once the events began, the energy and enthusiasm of the athletes obscured any lurking danger. Their talent is astounding, as is their ability to remain calm and attentive to their goals. It’s as though they’ve achieved what one author refers to as “ferocious equanimity” (Bergland, 2013). They display a near perfect combination of physical exertion and inner calm.

This is due in part to their higher than average vagal tone index. Never heard of VTI? It’s a measure of how well the vagus nerve is performing. That’s the nerve that runs the length of the body, and facilitates communication between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It helps interpret incoming data, balancing the sympathetic system’s urge to “fight, flight or freeze” with the parasympathetic system’s urge to “rest and digest”. This sets the stage for optimal performance, as well as feelings of mental and physical well-being.

Children with early trauma histories often have a lower than average VTI. Their heightened sense of danger makes it difficult for them to process incoming data correctly. They either overreact, making it difficult for them to maintain focus; or they withdraw, unable to tolerate even the slightest criticism or failure.

While many of these children may never achieve the “ferocious equanimity” of Olympic athletes, there are strategies that can help them improve their VTI and enjoy a more relaxed, higher quality way of life. Here are a few things to try:

• Teach children how to breathe. Show them how to tap the power of the vagus nerve to create calm on demand by taking a few deep breaths, and savoring the release of a long exhalation.
• Provide children with opportunities for aerobic exercise every day. Exercise increases oxygen in the blood, reduces heart rate, and releases neurotransmitters that relax the body and the mind.
• Sing every day. Music lifts the spirit and soothes the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.
• Tell children about their vagus nerve and encourage them to tap into its ability to reduce stress.

For more information on ferocious equanimity see:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201302/the-neurobiology-grace-under-pressure