Poly Vagal Theory and the Vagus Nerve’s Role in Our Feelings of Safety

What is Poly Vagal Theory?

New psychology research explores Poly Vagal Theory and the vagus nerve’s role in helping us to feel safe. Jill Miller described, “This is a way to be in conscious dialogue with our senses: the feelings, the urges, and the needs of your body.”

Prior to Poly Vagal Theory the nervous system was best understood in two dimensions. This can be described as the sympathetic or our fight-or-flight response and the parasympathetic or our freeze-or-faint response.  In this two-way explanation, more activation signals more arousal and less activation signals less arousal. However, the introduction of Poly Vagal Theory considers a less black-and-white perspective. Therefore, it included a third response: one which both stimulates and calms. How? Poly Vagal Theory explores the role of the vagus nerve.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve connects our brains to lots of important parts within the body, like the organs in our gut, heart and lungs. The word “vagus” comes from the Latin word “wandering”. As a result, this is what the vagus nerve does: it “wanders” to many parts of the body. The vagus nerve has two branches: dorsal and ventral. The dorsal branch serves the higher part of our body (our third eye up) whereas the ventral branch serves the lower part of our body (our third eye down). However, the dorsal and ventral branch of the vagus nerve function in different ways.

The dorsal branch or the unmyelinated vagus nerve elicits a shutdown response. This is where the body safeguards against perceiving traumatic events by “checking out”. However, whilst this can be helpful in the initial instance of trauma, this is not so helpful, if we are often triggered into this state. Therefore, this is where the ventral branch or the myelinated vagus nerve plays an important role. This is because, it doesn’t cause this total shut-down response, but rather, tries to restore regulation. How does the vagus nerve bring us back to feelings of safety?

The Vagus Nerve or our Safe Social Engagement System

Our primal response as humans is to stay alive and so we are constantly responding to the internal and external signals our body is receiving. For example, during non-threatening situations, our bodies stay in a happy and safe social engagement state. In this state, we are unafraid and enjoy our interactions with others.

Psychiatry professor, Stephen Porges called the ventral branch of our vagus nerve, our social engagement system because it helps restore us back to this safe state of social bonding. In fact, evolutionary psychology research shows we are soothed by the sounds of others and highly attuned to their facial expressions. So we can see how the vagus nerve is beneficial to our connection to others. This can have an important role in a therapeutic setting. Especially amongst individuals who have experienced trauma and feel disconnected from others.


Why is Poly Vagal Theory Important in Therapy for Individuals whom have Experienced Trauma?

Clients who have been exposed to traumatic incidents often feel disconnected from a sense of safety and don’t feel secure in their relations with others. There are two ways this is represented:

Sympathetic Nervous System Response – Fight-or-flight:

What does this look like? A client looks like they are constantly on the lookout for danger. Further, they describe feeling anxious, afraid or angry. They can also say their muscles feel tense and their stomach is knotted.

Unmyelinated Vagus of Parasympathetic Nervous System Response – Freeze-or-faint:

What does this look like? A client looks like they are spaced out. They show protective body postures like curling up in a ball. Further, they describe feeling frozen, “out of it”, trapped and cut off from sensations of pain or strong emotions.

For people who have been through a traumatic event, other events or situations which remind the person of that event can trigger the same life-threatening response. This is because the original trauma has not been processed. This is where therapy comes in. Because the therapist can help a clients navigate their poly vagal states and bring their body back to a feeling of safety. They do this through showing individuals how to stimulate the vagus nerve. (Note. therapists also use many other strategies for helping clients through trauma… for more information see treatment for childhood trauma, EMDR for trauma). The great news is stimulated the vagus nerve is simple and actually shows benefits for everyone.


How can we stimulate the vagus nerve?

These four simple steps posted are ways we can stimulate the vagus nerve. And as result, increase our vagal tone.

  1. Breathwork :Breathe deep into the belly and slow down your breath. Use count – breathe in for 4, hold for 2, breathe out for 4. Listen to the sound of your inhale and exhale and feel the air move through your nostrils and throat.
  2. Engage your vocal cords: Think activates like singing, humming, chanting and laughing.
  3. Socialise: Bonding with others helps us to feel safe and connected. Try to make social plans with loved ones and keep them.
  4. Cold Exposure: This can be achieved through cold showers or swimming.

These practices help to create movement and flow through our myelinated vagus nerve. The great news is we don’t need to be experiencing distress to benefit from these. Research shows strengthening our vagal tone regularly is beneficial. It helps us relax faster during times of stress and be more resilient to those stresses. It also increases positive emotions and restores our feelings of safety. In conclusion, poly vagal theory and the vagus nerve are important ideas explored in new psychology research and therapists can use these concepts to help clients feel safe.


Where Can I Find Support to Help me Feel Safe?

If you are struggling with some of the points mentioned here, please reach out to our therapists. We can help you navigate your poly vagal states. To consult with a CBT Professionals psychologist, please download our referral form here and take it with you to your GP appointment. We hope to be of assistance soon!

If you require immediate support to cope with a traumatic experience, please call the lifeline or beyond blue 24/7 crisis support telephone lines.

Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.

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