Updated: Dec 16, 2020
How do you approach your life?
· Do you feel calm, trusting, balanced, connected, secure, interested in others, open-hearted, part of a community?
· Do you tend to get easily agitated, ready for a fight, always prepared to run, angry, hyper, dysregulated, on the defensive?
· Do you feel alone, disconnected, helpless, unable to cope, shutdown, numb?
How do you feel about your health?
· Is your body optimally healthy?
· Is your mind optimally sound?
· Are your emotions optimally balanced?
Are your relationships optimally trusting?
All of these questions relate directly to your polyvagal system. Bear with me as I start with some pretty technical information:
What Is the Autonomic Nervous System?
Polyvagal theory (PVT) came to life in the 1990s based on Steven Porges’ groundbreaking work that updated scientific thought about how humans respond and adapt to environmental inputs and stressors. Prior to PVT, it was thought that humans had two hardwired autonomic nervous system responses to ensure personal and species survival:
the sympathetic fight-or-flight reaction and
the parasympathetic rest-and-digest (also called breed-and-feed) response.
These two branches of the ANS were shown to work together to help humans achieve allostasis and homeostasis – the capacity to adapt to changing environmental demands in a sufficiently adaptive manner and to return to a state of balance. The sympathetic nervous system typically takes over when fast reactions are needed for the safety of the organism, mobilizing the organism into action and initiating the infamous fight-or-flight reaction in response to stress. The sympathetic nervous system activates skeletal muscles in preparation for mobilization. The parasympathetic nervous system comes into play when fight-or-flight mobilization is not needed. It allows the organism to lower its defenses, regain a state of calm, and return to the business of being a thriving organism, prepared to rest-and-digest, feed-and-breed, and connect and stay safe.
With Porges’ research on the vagus nerve, the understanding of the autonomic nervous system, especially its parasympathetic branch, expanded and became more complex. The vagus nerve is an integral aspect of the autonomic nervous system – the part of the human nervous system that functions outside our conscious control to surveil and regulate bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate, and arousal. The vagus nerve is our body’s surveillance system in that 80% of the information conveyed by the vagus nerve is sensory information coming from the body and carried to the brain. The vagus nerve collects information about our physical and emotional safety as perceived by the organism at all times. This information (collected and conveyed to the brainstem by the vagus nerve) is the foundation of what Porges calls neuroception – the ability to read our internal physiological reactions and to respond to them quickly and efficiently to mitigate possible threats to life or safety.
What are the Two Branches of the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
Porges’ work revealed that the vagus nerve actually has two distinct branches that surveil and regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in two profoundly different ways to cool down the sympathetic nervous system response of mobilization (i.e., fight-or-flight) or to help us exist in the world.
These two separate and distinct branches are called the dorsal vagal (DVC) and ventral vagal (VVC) complexes; they mediate intensely different responses to stimuli or inputs arising through inner visceral and outer environmental sensations.
The dorsal branch of the vagus nerve responds to life threat and results in immobilization (e.g., playing dead, fainting, dissociating, or shutting down behaviorally and/or emotionally). This branch of the vagus nerve is very ancient and can be seen very readily in the behaviors of reptiles who are under life-threat. It is linked to the sensory nerves below the diaphragm and hence relates to visceral responses.
The ventral branch of the vagus nerve responds to perceptions of safety and results in prosocial behavior. Through increased neural complexity first noted phylogenetically in mammals, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve evolved a social engagement system. It is linked to the sensory nerves above the diaphragm and as such is associated with the heart and the HPA axis. This social engagement system facilitates prosocial behavior, verbal and nonverbal communication, and adaptive emotional responses to occurrences around us and inside of us.
The branch of the autonomic nervous activated in response to environmental sensory and internal visceral stimuli depends on our interpretation of these inputs. The vagus nerve is the primary conduit for communication about our internal state as perceived through various sensory systems to the brain:
It relays physical, mental, and environmental sensory input (from the bottom of the brain) via the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula to the prefrontal cortex (to the top).
It integrates emotion, cognition, and conscious deliberation about sensory input from the top to the bottom, creating integration across brain structures that allows for collaboration of top-down and bottom-up pathways.
When we achieve top-down bottom-up integration we gain access to our ventral vagal space; become calm, integrated, and resilient; and able to engage with others positively and through verbal and nonverbal communication.
So How Do We Decide Which Branch Activates?
Generally speaking, we do not really consciously decide. Our threat detection (or surveillance) system helps steer us in the direction of one of three ways of responding. Threat detection is unconscious and arises at the sensory receptor level via a process for which Porges coined the term neuroception. Neuroception relies on the vagus nerve to collect sensory information and relay it to the brainstem. Neuroception of the environment and our internal state can result in three possible perceptions of what is happening: safety, danger, or life-threat (terror).
Neuroception of safety activates the ventral vagal complex of social engagement. It results in physiological recovery, emotional processing or interoception, mental regulation, and prosocial behavior (including socially engaging voice and facial expressions, and relaxed posture).
When we are in a ventral vagal space, we are open-hearted, ready to communicate, non-defensive, and emotionally balanced. We are ready to be in relationship and to give and receive love, kindness, and compassion.
The ventral vagal state is our natural, resilient way of being in the world. It is our coping state that allows us to create relationships and to stay connected. However, because life has challenges and ups and down, none of us ever stays in a ventral vagal state forever. We move to other states as needed when the environment or relationships throw us a curve. However, if all goes well, we return to the ventral vagal space when the crisis has resolved.
Neuroception of danger activates the sympathetic nervous system, mobilizing a fight-or-flight response to increase likelihood of survival. It results in increased muscle tone, redirection of blood flow from the periphery to the core, inhibition of the gastrointestinal system, dilation of the bronchi, and increased heart rate and respiration (among other physiological responses) to ready the organism for a vigorous survival response.
When we are in an acute sympathetic state, we are ready to either fight or flee – depending on what the circumstances are. We are less interested in communicating to resolve conflict; we are ready to pounce and defend instead. We are in survival mode and care more about our own wellbeing than that of the others who are seen as a potential threat or danger.
When we are in a chronic state of hyperarousal (as many of us are due to ongoing chronic stress or perception of stress), over time our physical and emotional health becomes compromised. Because we cannot seem to get back to the ventral vagal space, our blood pressure may stay chronically high; our digestion may start to fail and our gut flora might suffer; we may always be on alert or prone to anxiety and excessive worry; we might resort to drugs or alcohol to try to calm our nerves; we are always on alert and ready for action and self-defense. In time, our adrenals may wear out and we lose energy and start to feel worn out and unable to cope. We want to muster our resources to stay in the fight, but we cannot do it anymore. We are burnt o
Neuroception of life-threat activates the dorsal vagal complex of immobilization. The sense of terror it instills results in shutting down, freezing, or “playing dead”; decreased muscle tone and decreased cardiac output; reflexive defecation and urination; and other physiological responses that reduce life functions to the least amount needed for survival.
When we are in an acute dorsal vagal space, we shut down – we are not interested in communicating, we have given up on defending ourselves. We have become physically or emotionally immobilized and cannot muster any resources other than playing dead (literally or figuratively) to try to save ourselves.
When we have experienced significant or complex trauma, we may move into a chronic dorsal vagal state. Because we cannot return to the ventral vagal space of human connection and trust, we develop emotional challenges that take us out of supportive relationships; we expect to be re-traumatized and to be hurt; we may develop pains and aches that keep us inactive and disengaged from life; we may lose our drive to create a better life; we might give up on ever feeling connected again. We may move through life in a depressed and defeated way. We may even become suicidal.
What Are the Implications of All of This?
Resilience is the ability to move smoothly and integratively between the three autonomic nervous system states, especially between the social engagement and mobilization responses, as needed to secure our survival and wellbeing. Most commonly, we need to be able to put on the brakes and connect with others (moving into our ventral vagal space). At times, we need to be able to mobilize and put our resources toward responding rapidly and vigorously on our own behalf (activating our sympathetic nervous system response). At times, we need to surrender and preserve our life energy purely for survival (moving into a dorsal vagal state).
The challenge to our wellness arises when chronic, complex, perhaps traumatic, life experiences (especially during early childhood) condition our nervous system to default either to mobilization or shutting down at the expense of deep interpersonal connection. Through experience, we may develop patterns of responses (‘pattern locks’ in science talk; samskaras in yoga language) that are driven by habit and conditioning, rather than being based on what is actually happening in the moment. Some of us will become more likely to perceive safety (living more commonly in a relaxed, engaging, and restorative ventral vagal space); some of us grow up or learn to expect danger (living in a near-constant state of sympathetic arousal, isolation, and physiological overload or break-down); and a few of us come to expect life-threat or trauma and develop a habitual pattern of shrinking back from life, withdrawing – even dissociating – from human experiences.
How Does Yoga Help?
Yoga is a tremendously transformative and liberating practice of adaptability, agency, empowerment, and resilience. There are many mechanisms in play that help yoga transform our relationships with ourselves and others. Here are a few:
Yoga creates community and belongingness. Feeling like we belong and supported restores balance to our nervous system. It supports neuroception of safety and brings us back to a ventral vagal space. We can once again feel calm, relaxed, interpersonally engaged. We can feel loved and loving.
Yoga helps us develop mindfulness. When we become mindful, we become more accurate about noticing what is actually happening in this moment – as opposed to experiencing what we expect to feel. We become reattuned to our actual lived experience and the sensory inputs from our bodies as they unfold in real time. We become more accurate about how we read what is happening in our environment and in our relationships.
Yoga helps us take a break before reacting to an inner or outer event. When we have an intense or emotional experience, yoga teaches us to take a moment to think about what happened and to decide how to respond. This break helps us make more discerning choices about whether we want to go with our standard (habitual or conditioned) reaction or whether we want to try a new way of behaving or responding.
Yoga promotes self-agency. As yoga teaches us to become more aware of how we respond to inner and outer events emotionally and mentally, we learn to take a step back from our reactivity. We realize we have freedom of choice – instead of running or fighting, maybe we try talking or communicating. We become the agents of our behavioral or relational response rather than being a prisoner of our habits or conditioning. We are able to decide what we want to do and how we want to feel rather than feeling helpless and out of control.
Yoga reminds us that this too shall pass. As yoga teaches us to watch feelings and sensations in our body, breath, and mind, we realize that they come and go; that they change and evolve over time. Once we realize that everything changes, we become more able to make decisions about when we can accept what is happening, when we need to take action, and when we simply need to leave a bad situation. We begin to realize that we can let go at times, that we do not always have to fight what is happening. We learn that sometimes it is okay to go with the flow of life and not to push the river.
Yoga empowers us to take engaged and flexible action. Yoga teaches us that we can respond with flexibility. We do not have to succumb to habit power or conditioning based on old experiences. Instead, we begin to realize that we have the power to try a new approach – even to have new expectations. We learn when we need to stand up and fight for our or others’ rights; we learn when we have been wrong and need to apologize. We learn when it is time to fold up our tents and go home. We are engaged with life with an open heart and an open mind.
What Are the Next Steps Toward Developing a Regular Yoga Practice?
Yoga offers many strategies that support social engagement, accurate neuroception, and response flexibility. It helps us understand more clearly the reality of our current circumstances and to move beyond reactions, habits, and conditioning. We become agents on our behalf; we become resilient; we find joy in relationship. Yoga strategies range from lifestyle commitments, movement practices, breath work, concentration and attention, to meditation and mindfulness. In a prior blog, we already looked at how the breath can become our access point into the autonomic nervous system, connecting us to ourselves and our community. As we practice yoga, we reintegrate our nervous system, we move into our ventral vagal, connected, social, and loving space of connection, engagement, and belonging. Yoga strategies become our tools to interrupt our habit power; yoga practices become a reset button that allows us a moment of reflection or discernment before we jump into action; yoga relationships reconnect us to a compassionate community within ourselves and around us.
Join us at YogaX to learn how to practice yoga to reset your nervous system, to interrupt your patterns or habits, to lean into your own resilience, and to experience a sense of belonging. We offer many free resources and practices (e.g., mindfulness moments, meditations, breathing exercises, and full-length classes) on our website and our YouTube Channel. One of these classes is fully dedicated to the the social engagement system. If you want to dive even more deeply into the practices of yoga, you might also take one of our many workshops or enroll in a YogaX Yoga Teacher Training.
With deep gratitude for all of the shoulders we stand on when we practice yoga and experience its amazing benefits for our nervous system (and beyond). From ancient yogis to modern scientists, we are forever in debt for having a path paved for us that leads us to a more connected life of belonging, resilience, and wellness.
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is the Director of YogaX, a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page.
For additional readings, check out these amazing resources:
Porges, S. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory : The transformative power of feeling safe. Norton
Dana, D., & Porges, S. (2018). Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory: The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. Norton.
Rosenberg, S. (2017). Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve. North Atlantic Books.