June 7th, 2019
Viva Las Vagus Nerve!
A Polyvagal Primer
Have you ever heard of the vagus nerve? Maybe or maybe not, but no matter: If you have a breath and a heartbeat, this nerve is doing some heavy lifting for you every day.
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. Its name means “wandering” in Latin, and it takes a long, meandering journey throughout the body. It starts in the medulla oblongata—the low brain—just behind the earlobes, and runs down both sides of the neck. It has branches that innervate the heart and lungs; liver and gallbladder; stomach, pancreas and spleen; large and small intestines; kidney and bladder; and the genital organs. That’s some nerve, right?
The vagus nerve doesn’t simply amble through these important organs, it also sends them messages to keep them functioning. These signals don’t even have to be directed by our thoughts. We don’t have to think for our hearts to beat or our G.I. tract to digest. They seem to act on their own, when in fact they are acting at the command of the vagus nerve.
Funnily enough, the vagus nerve is also critical in determining how we assess social situations and act in them. Behavior neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges’ concept of polyvagal theory suggests that there are three ways the vagus nerve mediates our social behavior. When safety is sensed, the vagus nerve manages our social engagement system, helping us to navigate relationships by sensing safety and giving us the activation needed to engage with others. And if our nervous system determines we’re in danger, the vagus nerve helps us to negotiate safety, either through mobilization (i.e., fight or flight) or shutdown (i.e., submission, collapse, or dissociation). Like our heartbeat or breathing, these systems are enacted by the vagal nerve without us needing to consciously tell ourselves what to do.
Let’s go through these three responses in more detail.
The Social Engagement System allows for social approach behavior. Think about what it’s like to see two friends meet for lunch. As the friends approach each other, they may orient toward each other, make eye contact, and smile. They may have palpable energy that is both playful and at ease at the same time. This is what social approach looks like. It occurs when the nervous system has determined that all is safe. It involves the vagus nerve pumping a steady trickle of signals and hormones through the body that let it know to relax.
The Mobilization System comes on when the body senses a threat. Think of someone hiking in the woods and realizing they are being tracked by a wild animal. Their blood pressure may rise, their palms may sweat and their heartrate may increase. Their body would be getting them ready to mobilize to get themselves to safety. In a split second, their brain would assess the level of danger and determine a course of action—either meeting the threat head-on in fight or getting away from the threat via flight.
When Mobilization is not possible, the vagus nerve can enact System Shut-Down. This response occurs when the nervous system identifies profound unsafety, and yet cannot fight or flee. When that happens, the body goes into its second-level defense against the threat—submitting, collapsing, or dissociating to try to conserve energy until the threat recedes. In this response, our own nervous system hits the emergency brake to render us immobile. This can involve symptoms such as passing out, experiencing a fog of dissociation, freezing, and signs of limited organ function, such as not being able to eat. Interesting fact: The shut-down of the vagus nerve is an ancient evolutionary structure, found in our reptilian ancestors. Any time reptile’s system gets overwhelmed, they simply go kerplunk. Luckily for humans, our more nuanced Social Engagement and Mobilization Systems mean that we don’t have to hit the floor every time there’s a threat.
Sometimes, when we are hyperalert to threats due to anxiety disorders or past trauma, it can be difficult to access the ease and relaxation of the Social Engagement System. Some of us spend a great deal of time in states of Mobilization or Shut-Down. All is not lost! Being kind and attentive toward our vagus nerves can bring about increased relaxation, ease, and soothing. Try one of the activities below and see if you notice the subtle shift toward relaxation in your body.
Ways to Use the Vagal System to Soothe
Take a deep breath.
Even a single deep breath signals safety to our vagal nerve, which in turn communicates the safety to our body. Can you take two, five, or twelve? This may help you ease into a relaxed state.
Scan your space.
In a place where you know you are safe,
very, very slowly
use your eyes to scan the environment around you, following your eyes with the turn of your head. Try choosing a color and noticing every object of that in your line of sight, from one periphery to the other. The motions of your eyes and neck muscles communicate a felt sense of safety to your medulla, which in turn lets the vagus nerve carry the message to your body.
Hum to yourself.
The vocal cords run alongside the vagal nerve, and their vibration can help to soothe it. Eastern traditions teach that inhaling deeply and humming an “om” or a “voo” sound on the exhale can elicit relaxation of the vagus nerve and the organs connected to it.
Massage the vagus nerve.
Take two fingers on each hand and place them behind the earlobes, moving them in small, gentle, circular or up-and-down motions. Continue the motion along the jaw, sides of the neck, clavicles, and sternum.
Connect with another human.
The social engagement system is set up to be soothed the very best by the presence of a calming, supportive other. This is why babies fall asleep to the soft hum of their caregiver’s voice. It’s why a teacher or coach’s encouragement helps us to do our best. When we can take in another human’s calm, caring system, it helps our own nervous system know we are safe.
Does anything you’ve learned about the vagus nerve resonate with your experience? Working with a counselor can help you to increase your access to the Social Engagement System and calm and soothe your nervous system when Mobilization or Shut-Down are getting activated. Consider heading over to our Get Started page to request a counselor who can accompany you on your journey to tend to the wandering nerve.