A bundle of nerves to rule them all: Unpacking the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve relates to our capacity to function as social beings through maintaining our emotional regulation, fear response and social connections. We all constantly cycle through stages of disconnection, mobilisation and social engagement. Our Autonomic Nervous System adapts protection and connection from moment to moment.

However, patterns of protection can compromise our social engagement system. This article highlights some neuro-physiological explanations for why we are often not smooth and balanced. It also addresses ways to regulate and staying connected.

What is so special about the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve connects the brain with the heart and other major organs and runs on autopilot without requiring intervention. This system regulates our heartbeat, breathing and other autonomous body functions such as digestion, body temperature and sexual arousal.

…the different branches are related to unique, adaptive behavioral strategies and articulates three phylogenetic stages of the development of the mammalian autonomic nervous system. These stages reflect the emergence of three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviorally linked to social communication (e.g., facial expression, vocalization, listening), mobilization (e.g., fight-or-flight behaviors), and immobilization (e.g., feigning death, vasovagal syncope, and behavioral shutdown). 

Porges, Stephen W. (2010). The Polyvagal Theory.

Vagal branches are related to unique adaptive behavioural strategies that are essential for our survival. These strategies developed in three stages from immobilisation to mobilisation to social communication. As part of the autonomic nervous system, it is triggering the human defence mechanism that consists of fight, flight and freeze when there is danger or perceived threat.

It stimulates the body’s response when put under STRESS and it goes into shut-down mode when overwhelmed. However, our stress response is essential for survival, but needs to be tamed to enable social engagement.

How to understand your states of arousal?

The human survival mechanism is an integral part of our physiology. As such, the ability to sense and identify danger is inherently a valuable tool in our biological makeup and is termed “neuroception“. However, due to experienced trauma for example, the brain can map irregular associations resulting in a dysregulated nervous system. The first step, then is to recognise that this is happening.

“Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection. If unresolved, these early adaptive survival responses become habitual autonomic patterns.”

Dana, Deb. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Paying attention to states of arousal is vital, either in the moment or retrospectively. Consciously acknowledging when you experience one of the three defence mechanisms can make all the difference. If you find yourself uncharacteristically defensive (fight), feeling the overwhelming need to escape from a situation (flight), or rooted to the spot in a blind panic (freeze), it’s essential to understand the reasons behind these reactions.

Psychology and physiology merge in stages of the vagus nerve

My clients easily relate to the different stages of their vagal activation which can be described in terms of body and mind. The ventral vagal activation is represented by an open mind (“I may”, “may you be happy”) and an orientation towards others and the environment (posture, tone of voice, feeling warm).

Sympathetic arousal is reported as an increasingly narrowed mind with thoughts about taking action ranging from “I can” to “I should” to “I must” and simultaneously from feeling concerned/activated to anxious/angry to panic-fuelled/acting up. Body sensations include elevated heart rate, heavy breathing and feeling hot.

When the system becomes overwhelmed the dorsal vagal state of “I can’t” (“I collapse”, “I shut down”) takes over and clients of mine report to withdraw, self-medicate or zone out. This state is also characterised by a lack of connection, presence and self-control.

Due to the nature of the nervous system, we can feel each of these responses in varying degrees. A workaholic may have an active “flight” response, feeling a need to keep busy and seemingly unable to slow down. In someone else, a flight response may result in addictions – fleeing from emotions by making them go away with substances. 

Once identified, we can then understand what triggered the episode. Try to determine what happened immediately before the incident. Was it a comment, a specific tone of voice that someone used? Perhaps a smell or a particular situation made you feel overwhelmed.

How to cultivate the social engagement system?

We can take some steps to regulate and manage our nervous system. With a bit of practice using exercises that calm the nervous system and target the vagus nerve, we can maintain a healthy emotional balance.

In order to improve emotional wellbeing, it is important to understand how both internal and external factors impact mental health. Start by looking at your immediate surroundings. What elements spark joy for you? What aspects of your environment make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed? Think about what you can do to improve this environment. 

Even more important than the external environment is the internal struggle. One problem you may face is an abundance of self-criticism, overthinking and perfectionism. Practice snapping out of negative mental loops by

  • Simply letting your experience be: When you stub your toe, pause and feel the pain. No need to express it, stay with it – it is already there.
  • Simply letting go of any add-on experience: When you stub your toe, there is no need for anger, no need for cursing, no need for writing a screenplay about it.
  • Simply develop a more helpful attitude: When you stub your toe, pause and change your attitude. Does the leg of the kitchen table ask you to be more cautious or even to refurbish?

Directly Stimulating the vagus nerve can have tremendous effects on your reaction to stress. Breathing practices, yoga, physical movement, humming or singing, grounding exercises or working with temperature changes can all be valuable tools to help regulate your body when you catch yourself in a fight, flight or freeze response.

There is a wealth of information available for a more in-depth explanation of polyvagal theory and methods you can use to improve emotional well-being. Deb Dana has written an informative and helpful book on the subject, called “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.” Irene Lydon runs an exceptional YouTube channel outlining methods for improving mental health.