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The Ventral Vagal
Expert advice by veteran Family Therapist and Psychologist
For many years, the autonomic nervous system was thought to be the sympathetic nervous system in balance with the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic revved the body up and the parasympathetic calmed it down.
Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory changed all that. As I am just summarizing the polyvagal theory, if you want more thorough information, just google Polyvagal theory.
Dr. Porges discovered that the parasympathetic system is composed of two branches of the vagus nerve which arise from different areas of the brain.
The unmyelinated branch is an ancient system found also in reptiles. Its action is below the diaphragm. Myelin is the outer coating of a nerve which allows it to transmit impulses more efficiently. This branch lacks myelin.
The ventral vagus which we are interested in is found only in mammals and it is myelinated. It arises from the brain very close to the area that stimulates the face muscles and voice box. Stimulation of the ventral vagal allows up to be more relational.
When we are threatened the responses come down the development chain starting with the most developed.
- Smile and try and act pleasant to defuse the situation.
- If that doesn’t work, we prepare for fight or flight.
- If that doesn’t work, the body may go into freeze mode. Freeze dulls pain if we are attacked and if the predator relaxes its grip it gives us a chance to escape.
This is all below the level of consciousness. We do not have voluntary control over these responses.
It is possible with chronic stress to get stuck in fight or flight or freeze. It is also possible to alternate between them.
The signs of hyper-arousal (fight or flight)
|Exaggerated startle reaction||Outbursts of anger|
|Feelings of panic and anxiety||Insomnia|
|Reduced tolerance for pain||Fatigue|
|Difficulty concentrating||Constantly being on guard.|
|Feelings of electricity going through your body especially the legs. (feelings of bugs under the skin||Frequent urination|
The signs of hypo-arousal (freeze) are:
- Feelings of being hopeless and helpless
- Dissociating into daydreaming, or into a book where you are startled if someone calls or touches you.
- Just wanting to be in a dark room, lying in bed with the covers pulled over your head.
- We can alternate between these two states.
Stimulating the Ventral Vagus.
The only way out of these states is to activate the ventral vagal (relational) nerve.
There is two-way traffic in this nerve. Many signals come from our internal organs and travel up the vagus to the brain. This is the “gut feelings” that we get.
Signals travel back down the ventral vagus to have a calming effect.
There are some experiments being done with electrical stimulation of the ventral vagus for depression and epilepsy.
While we can’t do that, there are things we can do for ourselves to stimulate the ventral vagus.
What We Can do at Home to Stimulate the Ventral Vagus:
Remember, safety above all. If you do not feel safe, it is below the level of conscious response, and the ventral vagal will not activate.
- Values: Friends, family good health and generosity are essential.
- Being creative: Whether through writing, art, acting, singing or dancing.
- Prolonged exhale is the best way to stimulate the ventral vagus. If you haven’t seen the video I usually make available, then follow the instructions for conscious breathing which will follow.
- Conscious Breathing: The breath is one of the fastest ways to influence our nervous system. The vagus nerve is stimulated when the breath is slowed from our usual 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. Breathe in through your nose and give a very prolonged exhale through the mouth. Like you are saying AAH!
- Valsalva Maneuver: This involves attempting to exhale against a closed airway. You can do this by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. This increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity increasing vagal tone.
- Diving Reflex: Considered a first rate vagus nerve stimulating 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 bag and holding the ice against your face and briefly hold your breath. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body. An additional technique that stimulates the diving response is to submerge your tongue in liquid. Drink and hold lukewarm water in your mouth sensing the water with your tongue.
- The Butterfly Hug: The butterfly hug is a soothing gesture you can do anytime. Wrap your arms around your body at the level of the shoulders. Alternating pat one shoulder and then the other until you feel calm.
- Connection and Feeling Safe: Reach out for relationship. Healthy connection to others can initiate regulation of our body and mind. Relationships can evoke the spirit of playfulness and creativity or can relax us into a trusting bond with one another. While it is most effective in person, connection can be made through the phone or texts or social media. Texting only becomes a problem when it is used to avoid person to person contact.
This is a very simplified version of Dr. Porges polyvagal theory.