“Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve” is an idiom that is, well, factually incorrect. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientific biologist points out that we actually wear our hearts (our feelings) on our faces and through our voices.

This is true because the nerves that control the muscles of the face and head are linked through the brain stem to the vagus nerve which controls, among other things, our heart rate. Messages of threat, manifesting as fear, anxiety, etc are transmitted from the brain through the vagus nerve. So the more we get triggered the faster our hearts race, the more our hands sweat, the more our breathing shallows, which makes our voices sound tense, and the more likely we are to show our true feelings through our facial expressions.

We look at a people’s faces and listen to their voices to understand how they are feeling. According to Porges’ research we are more attentive to the intonation of a person’s voice than we are to the content. That is a pretty compelling reason to practice a more relaxed, conversational tone, because the more stress and anxiety the listeners detect in our voices the less likely they are to really pay attention to and HEAR what we say.

Remember that breath is both a calming mechanism for jingly nerves – the diaphragmatic breathing we practiced during the boot camp can help reduce the heart rate – and it is the fuel for our vocal chords.

Here are some ways Porges suggests to calm a triggered nervous system:

  • Slow deep exhalations are calming and can be done in many ways:
    • Singing
    • Playing a wind instrument
    • Talking with a long phrase without interruption
  • Deep breathing – consider breathing in through your nose and out through a straw, or breathe in for a count of six and out for a count of ten. (This forces our lungs to empty completely and then force a deep filling breath.)
  • Listening to music can trigger our social engagement systems (which help us feel less threatened by others)
  • Talking to a friend