The Vagus Nerve and the Reason for Starting a New Business

Social Space Community is a social venture.

The organization was established as a recreational hub for young individuals on the autism spectrum and other neurodevelopmental conditions to nurture strengths, support social and community participation, facilitate connection with like-minded peers and increase social-emotional well-being for all participants.

The idea took shape during my PhD candidature.

I evaluated the effects of a yoga-based program combined with third-wave cognitive behaviour therapy elements on self-regulation in children (8-12 years) on the autism spectrum. Parents had to actively participate along with their children. During my review of literature, I came across Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which discusses the role of the vagus nerve (part of the autonomic nervous system) and how it affects the spontaneous social engagement system of human beings including facial expressions, vocal intonation, and listening.

According to the theory, when the ventral part of the vagal system is activated, it is accompanied by lower physiological arousal which in turn assists with social connection and feeling of physical safety. When calm, the physiological functioning enables better psychosocial functioning, ability to self-regulate and the reverse is observed when there is a low vagal tone. The vagus nerve also innervates the heart and the lungs. A healthy vagal tone is indexed by Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

To summarise, this meant that there is a relationship between social-emotional behaviour and physiological functioning.

While I did not measure HRV as it was beyond the scope of my PhD, I was intrigued.

It is a remarkable theory and I realised that I needed to not just work with the brain (thoughts) but also with the body and the nervous system. One way to lower physiological arousal and activate the ventral vagus system is through breathing. Breathing can be brought under conscious control. Taking deep slow breaths and gently extending the exhalations at a level comfortable for the person can regulate the parasympathetic relaxation response.

Breath awareness and helping children regulate their breath with mindful movements was a key focus during my doctoral research. But it also got me thinking, what if I could provide a space that was calm and structured, where the children were engaged in what they like, bring mindfulness in all activities they were engaged in, supported by their loved one? What if I could provide opportunities for positive social experiences which in turn can stimulate the calming system? Parents will often say that if they are calm, the children are calm. Could I provide a space to facilitate co-regulation and where parents were also involved in the mindful activity? Mindfulness put simply is attention training. We are present with the experiences but non-judgementally.

Providing a space that nurtures strengths

I also wanted to provide a space that nurtures strengths and gives young individuals a chance to explore the existing skill sets. I wanted children and teens to “take in” the positive experiences and add them to their memory bank.

This is the premise for the Social Space Community. Space where the young individuals can belong, connect (with their breath, their experiences, their parent/carer, and peers), and grow a sense of community! During the development of the venture, one of the persons I spoke to was Barb. I wanted to know her to take on the idea. I remember I was so nervous before my phone call. But Barb gave me encouraging feedback and suggestions. Her reassuring words certainly helped activate my relaxation response and the strength to set off on this new journey. Thanks, Barb!

We offer a range of group activities keeping the above-mentioned framework in mind. The activities range from mindful art, craft, growth mindset club, photography, yoga, and even Dungeons and Dragons!

Radhika TanksaleAbout Dr Radhika Tanksale (MA, MPhil, PhD Psychology)

Radhika worked as a Clinical Psychologist in Brisbane for around 10 years at a private practice until Feb 2021. The practice solely provides services to individuals on the autism spectrum. Having a keen interest in yoga, there was a wish to incorporate the third-wave CBT approach, influenced by mind-body practices in her clinical practice, to provide children on the autism spectrum tools to increase self-awareness and improve self-regulation. This idea culminated in a PhD study in 2016.

Keeping the unique learning, cognitive, and language profile of the population, she developed a six-week brief Incredible Explorers program based on yoga combined with contemporary CBT elements for 8-12-year-olds. She ran a pilot randomized controlled trial to evaluate the program. She graduated in January 2021.

Stemming from her research, Radhika decided to start a social hub for children and teens on the autism spectrum and help bring mindful awareness to the activities they engage in and savour the positive moments. Her new business is called the Social Space Community (www.socialspacecommunity.com). Radhika has completed 50-hour kids yoga teacher training from Zenergy Yoga and the 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.