Imagine you are surprised by an unexpected reward at your end-of-year function. You are asked to step up to the stage. With a trained vagus nerve, you notice surprise and weakness in your limbs but within milliseconds you become calm, control the anxiety and connect to the occasion with pleasure and gratitude. Your acceptance speech resonates.
With a neglected vagus nerve, you panic. Your mouth is dry, vision blurs, you feel too weak to move, your heart is thumping, and you can barely make it up the stairs. When you try to say thanks, your mind freezes, and nothing comes out. Embarrassing for all of us.
Best you understand how to work with your vagus nerve.
First introduced in 2012 by Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory has become a powerful concept with a range of practical applications.
What you will learn:
- The vagus nerve: what it is and how it works in your life
- The physical mechanisms of freeze, fight and flight
- The learned skills of relaxation, connecting and finding flow
- How you might recover from confusing adversities in life
- How vagus training can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure,
- What you can do to increase the power (tone) of your vagus nerve
- How Vagal Tone underpins mental health, wellbeing and resilience
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve which exits low in the skull, runs down both sides of the neck and into the lungs and heart before diving down into the abdomen. It is a very long and critically important nerve for life. For a deeper dive, please follow the references.
The vagus nerve works with other cranial nerves to influence and modulate our facial expressions, head movement and tracking, hearing and voice. In the chest it influences breathing and controls heart rate – speed and variability. In the abdomen it influences peristalsis (food movement), gut neurology, bacteria, inflammation. Further, it is a key element of urination, bowel movements and sex. It works in synchrony with your sympathetic system or causes chaos.
The dorsal vagus fibres are ancient (reptiles) and slow. The ventral vagus fibres are much newer in evolution (mammals) and can be trained. Polyvagal theory dissolves confusing concepts like PTSD, autism, anxiety and psychological safety into a clear and testable biological reality. This leads to a set of practices to be safe, well and effective in life.
The Vagus Nerve and Sympathetic System in Action
Each of these reactions or responses are possible and available to us. Consider some of the more challenging situations you might face and see if you can recognise the pattern.
Freeze (old or dorsal vagus) reactions:
- Old reptilian reflexes to extreme threat (play dead)
- Blood pressure drops, bowels and bladder can void
- Can be a feint, collapse or tears
- Poses risk to human brain as blood flow drops
- Executed by the body to protect the body
- May leave us with confusion, regret or even guilt
- Experienced in extreme threat such as war, natural disaster or abuse
Application: when we are truly overwhelmed this is the best option. We collapse, look dead and lose feeling. Those suffering PTSD may find comfort and healing by understanding their reaction was the body's reaction rather than their failure to fight. Aspects of depression such as loss of energy, fatigue, confusion, self doubt and reduced motivation might be linked.
Fight (sympathetic system and anger) reactions:
- Body floods with adrenaline increasing blood pressure and pulse
- Blood flows to combat muscles – face, jaw, neck, shoulders and chest
- Associated with a flare of inflammation
- Narrow vision and focus on threat can lead to poor risk assessment
- Can leave us with impaired memory and regret
- Experienced when violence or force may help you counter a threat
Application: When we see anger this way, it is a destructive force to entertain in your body. The inflammation, immune system compromise and heart damage is well documented. It must be used sparingly if at all. See Take a Deep Breath is Bad Advice for more.
Flight (sympathetic system and fear) reactions:
- Adrenaline charges the heart and lungs
- Blood shunts to the large muscles of lower limbs
- Inflammation follows
- Thinking is disabled but may still lead to regret
- Underpins phobia reactions (fear of heights, spiders, etc.)
- Usually the best of a bad choice
Application: flight, fear, anxiety and worry are all linked. In PTSD, phobias, panic and generalised anxiety, we cannot contain the flight reaction. Our bodies have 'run away'. This is the most common form of suffering experienced today. If we can see it we can train as below.
The Vagus Nerve has three trainable levels
The human vagus nerve can be trained to work better. Firstly, we learn how to fire the ventral fibres. These relax and rejuvenate us restoring peace after freeze, fight and flight. Second, with repeated practice such as with rehearsal practices, breath training or meditation, the vagal nerve becomes myelinated. A fatty sheath enfolds the ventral fibres accelerating their action on the body - specifically heart, lungs, inflammation and gut.
Once we calm and control the primal reactions, now the vagus connections to the face, ears and voice become active. Heart rate variability increases. We actively seek connection. Myelination of the vagus is more advanced.
Finally, feeling safe and connected we have a strong platform for play, curiosity and performance. Now we have high functioning vagus nerve which is well myelinated and we have rehearsed and practiced tricky situations so much we actually look forward to challenges.
Let's explore those three levels:
Calm and Control:
- Ventral fibres of the vagus activate and initiate calm and control
- Heart rate slows and heart rate variability increase
- Lungs relax, diaphragm engages, and inflammation clears
- Hearing improves and voice softens
- Head movement, tracking and balance improve
- Awareness of body, emotion and thought sharpens
- Thinking, idea-generation and decision-making improves
Application: Calm and control is the foundation of safety and wellbeing. Without it, we increase the risk of ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, PTSD and Depression. Basic breathing techniques, neck massage, meditation and cold water can help. A supportive person with kind eyes and a melodic voice can help some activate this response. Sleep improves and health improves.
Control and Connect:
- Now calm and safe, our attention focuses on the situation
- We can hear voices of those who matter more clearly
- Our voice becomes mellow and prosodic
- We establish a relaxed and enjoyable eye contact
- Facial expressions around eyes increase
- Empathy increases – physical, emotional and mental signals
- Honesty, intimacy and respectful sharing come naturally
Application: As we power up our capacity to connect through eye contact, voice and touch, we heal autism, loneliness, depression and anxiety. We are establishing the foundations for high trust, collaborative relationships. Happiness, enjoyment of life and vitality flourish.
Connect, Play and Flow:
- Feeling safe, energised and connected the impulse to play arises
- Laughter, provocation, chase and evade emerge
- The sympathetic system is engaged with vagal tone high
- Play is how all young mammals learn to survive
- Physical interactive play trains us to perform (sport, drama, combat)
- Eye contact, prosodic voice, facial expressions and respect sustain it
- This is how we develop the capacity for Flow
Application: when thinking stops, time pauses, and grace unfolds we are in play or flow. Your vagus nerve is a force for joy, success and meaning in life. You have put the time into practice. You have done your drills and had plenty of failures. Your ability to be relaxed, flexible, connected and effective is established.
Once can imagine your vagus nerve is thick and glistening. It works really quickly now. In the beginning you lay awake in anxiety and hyperventilated for hours. Now your vagus detects your body's freeze, fight and flight reactions before you do. It has already restored calm, control and reconnected you to what really matters.
Practical tools to increase vagal tone
- Breathe out long and slow followed by a pause
- Establish and train your diaphragmatic breathing (8 min/day)
- Learn a contemplative practice – meditation, yoga, kindness
- Splash cold water on your face or swim underwater
- Whole body, foot or neck massage
- Gargling water and fasting
- Listening to prosodic music (Abba, Johnny Mathis)
- Laughter and singing
- Face-to-face connection (and yes, less device time)
- Unstructured play and structured practice or rehearsal
- Sunshine and vitamin D collaborate with the vagus nerve effects
- Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2012
- Stephen Porges, The Pocketguide to Polyvagal Theory, 2018
- Elizabeth Williams, Daily Vagus Nerve Exercise, 2019
- Robert Bright, The Polyvagal Theory, 2019