Polyvagal Theory and the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve

Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve

The state of our autonomic nervous system gives us an indication of our general level of physical health and emotional well-being.

Optimal health is possible only when we have a well-functioning ventral branch of the vagus nerve. — Stanley Rosenberg

In Activate Your Vagus Nerve, we discovered the significant role that the vagus nerve does in our health. We also learned what’s more aptly the lifestyle changes and healthy habits we can incorporate into our daily lives.

Today, we’re going to supplement them with a more direct set of self-help exercises so you can instantly experience the healing power of the vagus nerve. And believe me, it works!

These practices you’re about to learn are like pressing the reset button of your mind-body connection, which largely affects your overall well-being.

But before we proceed with the exercises, we must wrap our heads around an underlying important concept that will provide the framework for how healing is facilitated by the vagus nerve — The Polyvagal Theory.

In his book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, Dr. Stanley Rosenberg does an outstanding job of marrying the theory and the practices.

The presentation of the theory was a bit technical, though, and I guess Dr. Stanley did so on purpose to introduce this new approach to healthcare professionals and therefore apply it in their healing practice.

For the exercises, I’m going to share a series of video clips for demonstration so they’ll be much easier to follow along.

What is the Polyvagal Theory?

First off, I wanted to share this video where I gleaned a lot of insights from, which inspired me to write this follow-up article to our study of the vagus nerve.

Take time to watch the entire video, if you can, but I’ll also break it down for you and highlight my AWE-Ha moments.

To recap, Polyvagal Theory was developed by Stephen Porges to present a new framework for understanding the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Poly means many and vagal refers to the vagus nerve.

Before the theory was formulated, there were only two states or branches of the ANS we’ve been accustomed to: sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”).

That old model was based on the assumption that there is a single vagus nerve, when in fact, there are two different neural pathways that are both called “vagus.”

The Polyvagal Theory begins by recognizing that the vagus nerve has two separate branches—two separate, distinct vagal nerves that originate in two different locations.

Dr. Stanley says that we get a more accurate representation by taking into account, not only two but the three circuits of the ANS:

  1. Ventral branch of the vagus nerve (positive states of relaxation and social engagement)
  2. Spinal sympathetic chain (fight or flight)
  3. Dorsal branch of the vagus nerve (slowdown, shutdown, and depressive behavior)

The Importance of the Polyvagal Theory

At the 16-minute mark of the video, Sukie points out the significance of the Polyvagal Theory in our quest for healing.

It’s that these branches of the ANS evolved over hundreds of million years ago! The dorsal at nearly 500 million years, the sympathetic at 400 million years, and the ventral at 200 miliion years.

That was way before we learn any language and so they don’t respond to it. Thoughts and beliefs don’t apply to them.

That answers the question why we thought affirmations or any other mind tools don’t work. They don’t on these branches of our nervous system.

So, in order to work with them, we need a different approach. Instead of the psychosomatic (mind-body) approach, we use somatopsycho (body-mind) approach, meaning we make the changes in the body — and that’s what the self-help exercises are for.

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The Hybrid States

The Polyvagal Theory also implies that it’s not just an ON and OFF state, but we go through hybrid states where two neural circuits can be both activated at the same time.

We have what Dr. Stanley refers to as “mobilization without fear,” which is appropriate for certain events like when we engage in competitive sports. This state activates the spinal sympathetic chain allowing us to achieve our best performance and the ventral vagal so we can play “friendly” competition.

The same can be observed when we’re in our “flow” state, like in dancing when we need to be moving our bodies without stressing ourselves. We do it from a relaxed state so we can move with ease and be graceful with our movements.

On the other hand, there’s “immobilization without fear,” which combines the dorsal and vagal branches of the vagus nerve. This state is characterized by calm and trust, which allows one to connect and feel intimate with another person.

Treatment of Depression

As you can see, the sympathetic and the dorsal branches are not “bad” at all for they play their roles in maintaining homeostasis (balance) of the body.

The problem occurs when they become overly activated, when the state becomes chronic, putting the entire system out of balance.

Such is the case for depression, which is a state of chronic activation of the dorsal vagal circuit. But without the knowledge of the Polyvagal Theory, we won’t be able to categorize it plainly as stress or relaxation since it’s neither of them.

Although it’s paved with good intentions, the current model fails to address the condition caused by a vagus nerve dysfunction involving a specific neural pathway.

Depressed patients are often advised to have regular exercise and anti-depressant medication, which are both helpful in activating the spinal sympathetic chain. However, they don’t bring the patient out of depression completely. They are still in a stressed state, thus still imbalanced.

Dr. Stephen strongly believes that the only way out of depression is by activating the vagal ventral circuit.

Release of Trauma

Often, after a traumatic event, we say that we do not remember what happened. Our brain is incapable of forming verbalizations or visualizations about what had been going on at the time because we were reacting from a different, more primitive part of our brain and nervous system.

When our nervous system is deregulated, we dissociate. We lose contact with our body, with other people, or with the here and now. In terms of the nervous system, we have lost function in the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.

Trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score that the essence of trauma is dissociation.

The Polyvagal Theory provides it a more specific description as an ongoing activity of the dorsal vagus nerve that keeps us in a physiological state of fear.

What people experience during a traumatic event is a more pronounced activation of the dorsal circuit — shutdown, “immobilization with fear.”

So, when addressing trauma, the term “post-traumatic stress” in PTSD could be misleading as it implies being in a state of stress with the activation of the spinal sympathetic chain, “mobilization with fear.”

But after the trauma, Dr. Stanley says that not everyone is left in a state of chronic stress. More often than not, people are actually left in a state of dorsal vagal activity. Hence, a more appropriate term should be “post-traumatic shutdown.”

They are not stressed but rather shut down. Trying to treat them as if they are stressed can therefore be confusing and counterproductive. Talk therapy does not put them out of shutdown. It only reactivates the sympathetic chain and adds more stress by recalling the traumatic incident.

Again, the most effective approach is activating the ventral vagal circuit to lift the patient up above shutdown and stress states of post-trauma.

It is not necessary to go up the ladder one step at a time from shut-down to stress and then from stress to social engagement. Ventral vagal circuit activity moves a person directly from shutdown and emotional depression all the way up to a ventral vagal state.

Neuroception

Based on the signals from neuroception, well-defined neural circuits are activated to support the state of social engagement and friendly communication behaviors when we are safe; the defensive strategies of fight or flight when we are threatened; and shutdown when we are in serious danger.

“Neuroception” is a term coined by Stephen Porges to describe how neural circuits distinguish whether a situation is safe, threatening, or dangerous. It is an ongoing process through which our autonomic nervous system evaluates information from our senses about our environment and the state of our body.

A well-functioning neuroception activates the neural pathways that activate social engagement when we feel safe; the fight-or-flight strategies when we are threatened; and shutdown when we are in serious danger.

However, neuroception can be faulty, and when it does not work as it should we can find ourselves in deep trouble. Instead of clearly perceiving what is actually there, we distort what is going on. Faulty neuroception occurs when the neural circuits from perception to behavior do not function in an appropriate way. A person might react to a safe situation as if it were threatening or dangerous, or react to a dangerous situation as if it were safe.

A faulty neuroception may be caused by several reasons both internal and external factors. What Dr. Stanley emphasizes are chemical interference causes such as alcohol, medicines, and drugs that alter our perception and therefore lead to inappropriate reactions.

This is crucial in situations where our body needs to adapt to the present circumstance. Dr. Stanley shares a tragic story of a climber who died because his body did not adjust to the sudden change in weather conditions. It was found out later on that the prescribed medicine he took inhibited the activity of the neural pathways necessary to preserve his body temperature.

It goes to show how powerful the mind-body connection is and the importance of keeping them in check — the mind having a correct perception and the body with a well-functioning nervous system.

Age Doesn’t Matter, HRV Does

The success of the treatment appeared to be more closely related to the state of the autonomic nervous system than to age.

Dr. Stanley advises healthcare professionals that the state of their patients’ autonomic nervous system, particularly their vagal function, will highly determine how successful their treatments will be.

It was demonstrated during the 1988 research project done by Stephen Porges, together with his colleagues John Cottingham and Todd Lyon. After experimenting with a group of young and old men, they found out that the body therapy was more dependent on the subject’s heart rate variability (HRV), the gold standard for measuring vagal tone, than their age.

When Cottingham, Porges, and Lyon reviewed the data, they saw a closer relationship between high heart rate variability and a desirable outcome from the treatment than there was between age and outcome.

Dr. Stanley adds that over the years, he found that the implications of this study go far beyond body therapy. The HRV factor, which indicates vagus nerve functioning, is relevant in other forms of treatment as well.

In other words, the success of any healing modality heavily depends on the condition of the vagus nerve. We better get it functioning at its optimal level!

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do next.

The following self-help exercises will reboot your nervous system and restore it to mint condition regardless of your age.

Ready to have a fresh start? Let’s get it on!

Vagus Nerve Exercises

Here’s Sukie again with the demo and additional tips. She covers the exercises taught by Dr. Stanley in the book.

This one is called The Basic Exercise. It’s so “basic” yet so powerful that it can resolve all the issues we’ve talked about earlier. Dr. Stanley teaches this technique to his clients first and foremost.

Fun fact: I began tearing up when my eyes look to the right. It felt like a release! Tears are also a sign that the vagus nerve is being stimulated.

The next set of exercises is called The Salamander Exercises.

Vagus Nerve Massage

Here’s another set of massage exercises for stimulating the vagus nerve:

Neuro-Fascial Release Technique

The Neuro-Fascial Release Technique can serve as an alternative to the Basic Exercise. It is especially valuable for treating babies, children, and adults on the autism spectrum who lack the necessary verbal communication skills to absorb instruction about the Basic Exercise, when it might be difficult to communicate with them and have them follow your instructions. Using your hands in this way gives you a nonverbal method for bringing about beneficial changes in another person’s nervous system.

I also suggest that you end your sessions with this technique.

Now, here’s Tim for the demo plus additional vagus nerve exercises:

AWE-mazing exercises, aren’t they?

Let me know in the comments below how’s your experience before, during, and after doing the exercises.

You’ve probably felt the results immediately, yes? Awesome! But remember, we’re in it for the long term.

These exercises are a great way to jumpstart our healing. However, it’s doing them on a consistent basis that we gain the most health benefits.

You now have access to the healing power of the vagus nerve.

Heal yourself and be awesome!

Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

STANLEY ROSENBERG is an American-born author and body therapist. A Rolfer since 1983 and a practicing craniosacral therapist since 1987, he studied biomechanical craniosacral therapy for many years under Alain Gehin, trained in craniosacral therapy at the Upledger Institute and in biodynamic craniosacral courses with Giorgia Milne, studied applications for treating children with Benjamin Shield, and took courses in osteopathy with Jean-Pierre Barral.

For many years he led a school in Denmark, teaching structural integration, myofascial release, release of scar tissue, biomechanical craniosacral therapy, visceral massage, and biotensegrity.

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