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Polyvagal theory

Over the years I’ve done much research and attended many seminars, certification programs, retreats and explored all sorts of healing modalities.

Today I’m going to talk about polyvagal theory and the vagus nerve.

What is polyvagal theory? it’s a way of looking at the nervous system, one that can inform and deepen the mind-body connection. I think of it as a kind of moment-to-moment awareness of the ongoing biological reactions of self and others that deeply influence the quality of ones fundamental sense of safety in the world.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is a long nerve that connects your brain to many other important organs throughout the body, including the gut, heart and lungs.

It’s in charge of turning off the ‘fight or flight’ reflex’.

In times of stress or danger, our body is hard-wired to respond. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight action response. The parasympathetic nervous system triggers freeze-or-faint. These responses are related to branches of the vagus nerve.

It’s called “vagus” because it wanders, like a vagrant, among the organs.

I found this to be pretty interesting because it seems like the people who tend to be vagabonds, wanderers, black sheep, etc kind of seem like the vagus nerve of society. People with mental health issues tend to wander into uncharted territory, always searching for something, or running from something either internally or externally. They are stimulated more easily it seems, more sensitive to the things many people don’t notice. Perhaps they’re like the animals who preemptively fled before the oncoming tsunami, they had some sensitivity or awareness that others could not yet perceive.

The vagus nerve has been described as largely responsible for the mind-body connection, for its role as a mediator between thinking and feeling.

The vagus nerve is in charge of the parasympathetic nervous system, so the more we do things that activate it, like deep breathing, the more we banish the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. (Fight, flight or freeze)

How is this relevant to me?

Not only does the body remember a traumatic experience, but it can actually get stuck in the trauma response mode.

So even when the threat is gone, the body still perceives danger and its defenses stay engaged.

We must interrupt and re-shape our habitual autonomic patterns that cause our emotional suffering, maladaptive thoughts, and un-helpful or impulsive behaviors. We have to forget our old, stagnant and unhealthy coping mechanisms and build new ones. It’s important to dissolve tensions out of the nervous system and close the cycle of an emotional or stressful experience, as any overwhelming experience that doesn’t get digested in the moment lodges in the nervous system as some form of tension. The more this happens and the more of this tension energy we keep stored in our bodies, the more likely we are to develop chronic health issues, depression, anxiety, and dissociation.

Before polyvagal theory, our nervous system was pictured as a two-part antagonistic system. Polyvagal theory identifies a third type of nervous system response that Dr. Stephen Porges calls the social engagement system. The social engagement system helps us navigate relationships.

Created by Dr. Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory takes the fight-flight-freeze responses into account within the realm of psychotherapy. When a person feels safe, they are in a position to have a higher cognitive function. If they sense danger (real or perceived), higher functions shut down. When this happens on a chronic basis, it is as if your brain gets stuck in the “on” position. It’s “on” for fight or flight or freeze.

Over time, this trend will create a dangerously false perception. You’ll see all people as a source of danger. This keeps the involuntary cycle going. You can’t fight. You can’t flee. That’s when “freeze” kicks in. You shut down.

Polyvagal theory helps us understand that both branches of the vagus nerve calm the body, but they do so in different ways. Shutdown, or freeze-or-faint, occurs through the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve. This reaction can feel like the fatigued muscles and lightheadedness of a bad flu. When the dorsal vagal nerve shuts down the body, it can move us into immobility or dissociation. In addition to affecting the heart and lungs, the dorsal branch affects body functioning below the diaphragm and is involved in digestive issues.

Living with derealization disorder, this is a very important topic for me. If you have experienced any kind of trauma or chronic stress, if your body is stuck in fight ,flight, or freeze for so long, it tends to sort of shut down. Once you have experienced more than your threshold for pain, you can’t process anymore, leaving you overwhelmed, lethargic, anxious, depressed, and ultimately you dissociate. The shamans refer to this as “soul loss”. I am stuck in freeze mode.

Ongoing trauma results in overstimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems resulting in a variety of responses. Typically, psychotherapy puts the focus on either the fight or the flight factors, when dealing with trauma. Polyvagal-informed therapy, on the other hand, helps guide the client out of the shutdown phase.

What do I do?

Regulation of the nervous system relies upon the goldilocks principle. We recognize we are “too hot” when we feel anxious, irritable, or panicky. We are too “too cold” when we are shut down, depressed, or feeling hopeless. Practices that regulate the vagus nerve are aimed towards either relaxing or re-energizing ourselves depending upon what is needed to feel “just right.”

The goal is to find ways to move out of a dysregulated state—either a numbed-out “dorsal vagal” state or a hyperaroused “sympathetic” one—and return to “ventral vagal,” the biological seat of safety and connectedness.

So how do we stimulate the vagus nerve?

Here are some Nervous-system based Exercises:

  1. Deep and slow diaphragmatic breathing into your belly. The breath is one of the fastest ways to influence our nervous system states. The aim is to move the belly and diaphragm with the breath and to slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10.

  2. Box breathing

  3. Coherence breathing

  4. Singing, chanting, humming meditation The vagus nerve passes through by the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibrations of humming is a free and easy way to influence your nervous system states.

  5. Cold exposure (taking a cold shower, splashing cold water on your face) Considered a first rate vagus nerve stimulation technique, splashing cold water on your face from your lips to your scalp line stimulates the diving reflex. You can also achieve the nervous system cooling effects by placing ice cubes in a ziplock and holding the ice against your face and a brief hold of your breath. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body.

  6. Meditation

  7. Exercise

  8. Massage

  9. Sound healing meditation

  10. Intuitive art

  11. Yoga

  12. Meditation

  13. Body-awareness techniques that are part of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help clients move out of dissociative, shutdown responses by encouraging them to become more embodied.

Read more about the vagus nerve and polyvagal theory here:

thanks for reading!


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