Perhaps with a greater sense of how our autonomic system works (see previous blog post) we can shift towards understanding how to help ourselves regulate. As before, it is important to understand that our autonomic nervous system uses a process called neuroception to interpret our experience within our environment and then determines which of the three autonomic states is needed. What I find so essential about this is that it happens outside of our conscious awareness. That is, we do not choose our state so there is no shame in what our brain and body choose to do; it just happens based on our experience (i.e., our perceptions of it) and how our brain interprets it.
When our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) goes into overdrive, the vagus nerve calms us down. Furthermore, people with a stronger vagus response are more likely to recover more quickly from injury, illness, and stress. Thus, it is in our best interest to find a way to increase our vagal tone to help us with emotional resilience reducing the negative impact stress can have on the body.
The good news is, even though we cannot initially choose our state, we can bring awareness to our different states and work on shifting towards being regulated again when it is safe enough to do so (ventral vagal part of the parasympathetic nervous system). Furthermore, through practice we can increase our vagal tone, helping us to stay more regulated overall, building emotional resilience. What follows are different ways to help ourselves regulate and increase vagal tone.
There is so much talk about the breath and breathing techniques, sometimes it can seem overwhelming (or perhaps annoying). And yet, noticing the breath and shifting it in certain ways can have a profound impact on our autonomic nervous system. Just the process of noticing our breath can sometimes bring us to a more balanced breath.
There are many ways to work with the breath. More complexly we can use biofeedback, often accessed through mental health providers (I use Heart Math with interested clients). Biofeedback helps us learn about our responses to stress and how our breath impacts our body, helping us to increase our heart rate variability .
More simply, we can start with noticing our own breath. Perhaps we notice movement in our body as we breath (e.g., belly, chest, throat, nostrils). Perhaps we notice the pacing of our breath, maybe noticing if our inhales and exhales are similar in length or different. We may notice we are holding our breath. By bringing our attention to our breath, we already begin to shift it. From there, we can invite our breath to be balanced so that our inhales and exhales are equal in length. If we desire to bring in a greater sense of calm we can have our exhale and even the pause after the exhale be longer than our inhale. Breathing in this way helps us connect in with the ventral vagal part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Deb Dana, an LCSW with a passion for neuroscience, shares a number of ideas for regulating with the breath. She suggests:
* Balanced breathing with equal length inhale and exhale
* Blowing bubbles which requires a deep inhalation and a long, slow exhalation
* Playing a breath-powered instrument identifying kazoos as inexpensive and easy to use.
Through sound, our autonomic nervous system is able to take in information from our environment. Some sounds bring us into ventral vagal regulation, turning on the Social Engagement System so we feel safe enough to connect. While other sounds signal danger. The muscles of the middle ear allow mammals to hear different ranges of sounds, cueing us to either connect or protect. According to Stephen Porges, different sound frequencies and variations in pitch evoke different autonomic states and thus different emotional experiences. More specifically, our autonomic nervous system responds to low-frequency sounds (e.g., thunder) to be signals of a predator and responds to high-frequency sounds (e.g., baby’s cry, screaming) as signals of pain and danger (p. 144, “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy” Deb Dana). Thus, in responding to these types of sounds, the neuroception of safety is lost and our autonomic nervous system activates a survival response (i.e., fight or flight of the sympathetic nervous system or freeze/shutdown of the dorsal vagal part of the parasympathetic nervous system).
So what does this mean? It means that sound can be another way in which we experience or take in our environment, either signaling signs of safety or signs of danger. Interestingly, the range of sounds that activate the Social Engagement System are within the range of the human voice. It turns out, we need to hear each other, hear music, and talk to connect. Texting and emailing alone won’t do it. Conversation in and of itself allows for our vagal brake to practice engaging and releasing as we listen and respond to one another.
There is a reason so many find music helpful during times of struggle and uplifting or enhancing in times of joy. One way to play with sound is to consider making a play list of music that enlists your ventral vagal response, that is your Social Engagement System, when you feel safe enough to connect. Another at home way to tone the vagus nerve through sound is humming, singing, or chanting.
Stephen Porges takes this a step further with his Safe and Sound Protocol, a way to tone the vagus nerve by listening to specially modified, modern music within certain frequencies. The Safe and Sound Protocol can help reduce stress while building resilience and enhancing the Social Engagement System (ventral vagal part of the parasympathetic nervous system). The Safe and Sound Protocol can be accessed through trained mental health providers and other types of therapists (e.g., occupational therapists). For more information about the Safe and Sound Protool, either visit the SSP tab on my website (I offer this protocol to clients) or follow this link.
Touch is another way to increase vagal tone. Touch elicits emotions, modulates emotions, and communicates emotions; it helps us co-regulate with those around us. However, many have had negative experiences with touch such that it is important to be mindful of how we utilize touch, particularly in interactions with one another. To some, touch feels safe; to others it signals danger based on past experiences.
Deb Dana shares some ideas for engaging in touch without the interpersonal element including:
* Placing a hand over your heart Placing a hand on the side of your face and the other hand on your heart
* Placing a hand at the base of your skull and the other either on the side of your face or on your heart
* Cupping the eyes with fingers not he forehead and palms cupping the eyes without touching them
* Recalling times when touch felt soothing
* Holding a hot cup of tea
* A hot shower
* Wrapping up in a warm blanket
If you look at the human body with all of our very mobile joints, it is clear we were born to move. So it is likely not a surprise that shifts in our posture and different movements have an impact on our autonomic nervous system, first through activation as the vagal brake is relaxed and then through a sense of calm as the vagal brake reengages.
Deb Dana shares some great ideas for utilizing movement and posture to help tone the autonomic nervous system as follows:
* Sitting on an exercise ball requires constant micro-movements helping one be present
* Rocking chairs
* Experimenting with different postures and noticing your autonomic response
In my experience, various techniques for building vagal tone work differently for each of us. My hope is that this gives you some space for reflection on what works for you and perhaps permission to play with additional ideas to help your system regulate. If trying these things on your own feels overwhelming or just “too much” right now, you may consider connecting with a psychotherapist to help support you. May life find you well!