This is an exciting time in the fields of mental health and neuroscience. We are beginning to better understand how the brain and the body work with greater refinement as technology evolves. Through Stephen Porges’ work with the vagus nerve, we have a greater understanding of how our bodies respond to our world automatically, outside of conscious awareness - that is, from our autonomic nervous system which involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The Vagus Nerve - A Brief Overview
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is responsible for a number functions in the body. In terms of how we interact with our world, the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as “the relaxation response”. We now know that there are actually two parts to the parasympathetic nervous system. One helps us engage socially in a relaxed manner and the other shuts down our system to protect us in the event of perceived life threatening danger.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I like to use animal puppets to help explore this theory as it makes it a little more exciting and gives us a more accessible common language to use as we work to notice and understand our own state shifts. Consider the puppy, the owl, and the turtle as we explore these states more deeply.
The Puppy - Ventral Vagal Response
The ventral vagal response is one part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is the part of the vagus nerve that connects the brain stem to the Social Engagement System (body function above the diaphragm). When our bodies feel safe enough to connect, our body and brain communicate via the ventral vagal part of the vagus nerve allowing us to connect or socially engage with others. In this state we may feel calm, open, and in a state of flow with a desire to connect. This state helps us effectively navigate relationships with some flexibility in how we cope. Learning and growth are also optimized in this state.
The Owl - Sympathetic Nervous System
Within a few seconds of perceiving danger, our autonomic nervous system responds through the sympathetic nervous system readying our bodies to fight or flee. In this state, energy moves from secondary functions like digestion, reproduction, and immune response to the primary goal of getting away from the danger. It does this by flooding the body with hormones including adrenalin and cortisol, increasing heart rate and breathing rate, and increasing blood flow to the brain, muscles, and extremities all in preparation to fight or flee the perceived danger. In this state we may feel more on edge, anxious, restless, or unsafe as we perceive danger in our midst. Our perceived danger can range from giving a large presentation at work or school, to an upcoming exam, or to a bear nearby on our morning hike. Whatever the perceived threat, our body and brain are preparing to keep us safe through mobilization.
The Turtle - Dorsal Vagal Response
The sympathetic nervous system is a mobile response to danger that our body cannot sustain indefinitely. Thus eventually, much like a gazelle being chased by a cheetah our body shuts down or “plays dead” as it is called in the animal kingdom. This is also often referred to as the “freeze” response. The dorsal vagal response is the other part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Its job is to shut down in the face of perceived life threatening danger. Our pain signals for emotional and physical pain decrease (a good thing if we are going to be eaten by a cheetah!). Our muscles may feel fatigued and we may feel lightheaded. In this state we may feel numb, disconnected, or dissociative. It is our body’s last ditch effort to protect us in the face of (perceived) extreme danger through immobilization.
Now what? Identifying and Shifting States
Since these three states are part of the autonomic nervous system, we cannot necessary stop them from happening. And in some cases, why would we want to? Our body is doing its best to protect us whether through social engagement (puppy), fighting or fleeing (owl), or shutting down (turtle). However, for various reasons our perceptions may not be congruent with the reality that we face. For example, one who has a long history of relational trauma may struggle to feel safe enough to connect often seeing danger where perhaps there isn’t any. Alternatively, our body may shut us down without recognizing we now have additional skills for coping with perceived danger, in which case shutting down is not only unnecessary but may not be the most effective action.
In order to work with these states, we first have to notice them. Deb Dana is a psychotherapist and author who has developed a number of ways to help us map and identify our states. A nice start is to consider what each of these three states looks like for you (just dipping a toe in, not diving into a state) in terms of your thoughts, emotions, body sensations (if this feels safe enough to do), and your behavior. From there we can begin to pay attention and identify our different states. If this feels overwhelming to do on your own, connect with a psychotherapist who can help you navigate and become more familiar with these states in a safe way.
Once we can recognize these states, we can begin to shift out of them when it feels safe enough to do so. Since the dorsal vagal shutdown (turtle) is a state of immobilization, any movement or even visualizing movement can help us shift out of this numb or frozen place. One note, sometimes when we do this our body goes directly to the fight or flight response (owl). Thus, knowing how to shift back to a ventral vagal state (puppy) is essential. Since we may be coming from the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, which involves more jerky types of movement, more fluid or flowing movement can help us shift back to ventral vagal (puppy). My personal favorite is Volcano Breathing from Yoga Calm. To practice Volcano Breathing place your palms together in front of your heart. As you inhale as slowly as possible, keeping your hands together slowly raise them overhead. As you exhale, separate your hands and reach your arms out to the side and end by bringing your palms together in front of your heart. You can repeat this several times to help connect with more fluid movement connected with breath. Also going for a gentle walk, being in nature, or playing catch (I like to use a bean bag with clients) can help us return to a ventral vagal state (puppy). Not surprisingly, as mammals who are made for connection, if someone we trust and with whom we feel relatively safe is in a ventral vagal state, through their calm, relaxed state sometimes we can co-regulate particularly as we hear the fluid, easy tones of their voice and connect with their gentle eye contact.
It is essential to understand that these three responses are part of the autonomic nervous system. That is, the body sends messages to the brain and the brain selects a response within seconds, prior to having conscious awareness. Equally important in this day and age of “how to be the best whatever”, is to recognize that none of these three responses are better than the other. One isn’t ideal for every situation. These three responses are specific to our current experience and are intended to help us stay safe and connected if it is safe enough to do so. However, our autonomic response can serve as information to help us more deeply understand our patterns and perhaps shift them as we are ready.
A final note, if the ventral vagal response of the Social Engagement System seems hard to reach or even scary or unsafe know that you are not alone. Many people, particularly those with complex trauma histories struggle with relationships and with allowing themselves to feel relaxed. If this is you it may be helpful to seek professional assistance to help you heal your trauma. My hope is that in the mean time, we can all work to honor that our systems are taking care of us in the best way they know how.
This article is in no way intended to serve as medical advice or treatment. Please consult with your own medical and mental health providers in your healing journey.