Calm Your Nerves, Reset Your System!

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

We recently shared in our during our De-Stress during the Holidays blogpost about Polyvagal Theory, and how we can all use it to relax our nervous system and promote overall health. However, Polyvagal Theory is a bit complicated, and we wanted to set aside time to dive in deep because it’s a fairly novel concept!

First of all, why does the ‘state’ of your nervous system matter? If your muscles are the hardware, then the state of your nervous system is the software. For example, if the software is running a program of “Rest and Digest,” then it doesn’t matter how big your muscles are, you’re not going to be able to lift heavy.

Most people are familiar with the sympathetic “Flight/fight,” and parsympathetic “Rest/digest” aspects of our nervous system, or have perhaps heard those words around.

Research by Stephen Porges and Stanley Rosenberg has found that our nervous system is actually a bit more nuanced, and is more easily defined with 3 different pathways; the sympathetic nervous system, the Ventral Vagus, and the Dorsal Vagus/Parasympathetic.

This shift comes from a deeper understanding of the Vagus Nerve, after which Polyvagal Theory is named. The Vagus Nerve is the 10th cranial nerve of the body, and forms extensive connections between the organs, the diaphragm, and the gut, to the brain.

The Vagus nerve actually has two components. There is the Ventral Vagus component, which is the newer component that evolved more with humans. And then there is the Dorsal component, which is older. The dorsal component we actually share with fish and marine mammals, and wires to our lungs and heart. The Dorsal vagus innervates the organs below the diaphragm as well, and is therefore deeply related to our state of digestion. The Dorsal Vagus is the key mechanism to the parasympathetic nervous system response. In other words, the Dorsal Vagus is the volume control for our parasympathetic, or “Rest and digest” response.

In humans, when the dorsal vagus is engaged, it can lead to a slowing of the heart and respiration rate, which is great! We need to slow our respiration and heart rate when we’re sleeping. However, if left unchecked, it can also slow us down too much, and generate the ‘freeze’ response. This is also called “shutdown.” When in this state, people describe feeling “numb,” “disconnected,” or “out of it.”

The difference between ‘shut down’ and normal rest response? Whether or not the body perceives a threat. And remember, perceiving a threat means even imagining one in your head. Imagining your boss yelling at you, even if it’s not happening in physical space, is still perceived by your body as a threat. We’ll talk more about how perception of safety can change all of these states.

Then what’s the role of the ventral vagus? The ventral vagus is the ‘newer’ part of the nerve, and evolved more recently. It’s also myelinated (insulated, don’t worry about this word), which means that the signals travel faster. This ventral vagus innervates the organs above the diaphragm, as well as the muscles in our throat, and most importantly, our face. It is therefore receiving information about our facial expression, and is key to regulating our social engagement. It’s part of what regulates our voice, changes our tone, and is key to communicating.

Essentially, there are three switches in your body

  1. Sympathetic: Mobilize, energetic → Not Safe → Fight/Flight

  2. Ventral Vagus: Socialize, engage → Not Safe → Abusive social behavior

  3. Parasympathetic, Dorsal Vagus: Slow Down, Rest → Not Safe → Shut Down, Freeze

And each of these can respond differently in the context of whether or not you are SAFE.

We love this breakdown from Mattias Schwenteck who condenses it into a helpful video and made an awesome graphic.Polyvagal Theory explained. Somatic Consent Engagement System and Social Engagement System.

Check it out below!

We posted to our instagram about the Polyvagal Exercise, and we’ve written out the instructions for the Polyvagal Exercise from Porge’s work below. This exercise is designed to help shift you into a ventral vagal state, to bring you out of freeze, as well as out of flight.

  1. Lie on your back comfortably, with your knees bent if it helps reduce any strain in your low back.

  2. Interlock your fingers, and place them one the connection between the back of your neck and skull. If you feel at the back of your head, and slide down, the first “bump” you feel is your 2nd cervical vertebrae. Center your interlocked fingers just above that; your hands should be supporting the back of your head as you lie on the floor.

  3. Breathing deeply, and keeping your head still, use your eyes to look all the way to the right. Your head will stay still, but your eyes should move as much as possible.

  4. Continue to breathe deeply, looking to the right, for at least 30-45 seconds. You may notice a yawn, a deeper than usual breath, or a sense of relaxation.

  5. Bring your gaze back to center, and look all the way to the left with only your eyes. Maintain this position for 30-45 seconds.

  6. Exhale, bring your gaze back to center, and let yourself rest with your eyes closed.

So when do you use it?

  • When you’re stressed, and attempting to sleep

  • Prior to meditation

  • When you’re in recovery after an intense workout

  • Before social engagements, because it’s activating that part of your brain that’s oriented toward communication and emotional comprehension.

Give it a shot, and tell us what you think!

Happy Holidays,

Dr. JJ

P.S. If you're dealing with any injuries that are keeping you from enjoying your life and reaching your goals, Contact us today to learn more about how we can help!

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