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Correlation Between (Generational + Collective) Trauma, Negro Spirituals, & the Vagus Nerve?

On August 8, 2019 (the height of the Lion’s Gate Portal), I had a lightbulb moment. I was in a funk, feeling terribly sad, so I decided to listen to my Blessed playlist, a playlist I created that is full of my favorite gospel songs, songs that have gotten me through some really rough times or just got my spirit excited. As I was listening, I started singing along with the words. My body began rocking, I began crying. I started to pay attention to my breath and how as I was singing these alto notes, that my out breath was elongated and sustained. Then it literally HIT me. Hoooolyyy sheeeitttt. Was this what our ancestors did in times of sorrow, that caused the lamentation that we know as “spirituals”?

I’ve been studying trauma for the past few months. I am still studying trauma, actually.. In my research, I have also come across the role that the Vagus Nerve plays in our stress response aka the fight, flight, freeze response.

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The vagus nerve is a cranial parasympathetic nerve that is connected to many different parts of the body and activates them when faced with stress. (There is a great article on The Cut that helps to explain this nerve in more detail. You can read it here.) When this nerve is stimulated, it tells your body that you are safe & it also alerts your body to call of the FFF response aka to calm down. To stimulate this nerve, you can slow your exhale longer than your inhale &/or hum low vibrations (think of chanting or OMing). This is exactly what I was doing when I was singing/humming these highly spiritual songs….I was stimulating my vagus nerve.

So, as I was sitting there with this download, I start thinking, were negro spirituals (filled with low hums & vibrations) a subconscious remedy that we came up with to soothe ourselves during slavery aka TRAUMA? 

My head was spinning. Did our ancestors spirits know what to do well before science (the white man) explored this nerve & told us what to do to soothe our bodies in times of crisis and high nerve activity? I know that the Diaspora always had a deep connection to Source, Spirit, and Self, especially before slavery and colonialism. I know that we had a deep knowing, we used remedies that could not be explained, especially with science, and we practiced spirituality based on what could not be seen, but felt…I just never thought to marry vagal toning, trauma, and Negro Spirituals together.

When singing, we tend to hold out our exhale over many notes. My voice has always resonated with lower pitched sounds (I’m an alto) and if you have ever been to church, you know that people go wild over the tenor & bass notes (the lower pitches in the vocal arrangement). When you think of Negro Spirituals, you can hear the sorrow, you can easily notice the slow tempo of the songs, and the humming that is incorporated. I really feel like those songs got our people through the worst of times. As time went on, the negro spirituals evolved into hymns, the blues, and then R&B, which also contain the heaviness, the elongated notes, and humming.

Have we, unconsciously used singing as a way to help us calm ourselves and attempt to regulate our bodies? Is this why singing along to these songs often make us feel better, help us feel a bit more settled, even though the songs may be talking about something sad?

What are your thoughts?

Jaz StewartComment