For many years, the autonomic nervous system was thought to have two branches, a sympathetic branch for revving up and a parasympathetic branch for calming down.
According to Stephen Porge’s Polyvagal theory, the human autonomic (automatic) nervous system has 3 branches that have evolved over time:
The Ventral (Front) Vagal Branch, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, is responsible for social engagement when you feel safe, but is switched off when you sense danger.
The Sympathetic Branch, which is responsible for activation. When you feel safe, this gives you the energy to get things done, but when you detect a threat it becomes anxiety or “fight or flight”.
The Dorsal (Back) Vagal Branch, also part of the parasympathetic nervous system, is responsible for immobilization (stillness). When you feel safe, this allows you to “rest and digest” but when you become overwhelmed by a lack of safety it becomes “shut down or collapsed”.
When stress is high, the sympathetic system goes to a fight or flight response. Fighting or fleeing aims to resolve a threat, but if neither is possible nor successful, sympathetic arousal can become so extreme that it is too much for the body to handle, the dorsal vagal branch can send you into a state of collapse. This can be a full collapse, dissociation, or partial shutdown that makes it difficult to think clearly, access words or emotions, or move parts of your body.
Ventral vagal social engagement and healthy attachment with kind and loving people is a great way to come out of a dorsal vagal shutdown, especially if you have had traumatizing experiences with untrustworthy people in the past.
Increasing Vagal Tone
The tone of your vagus nerve is key to accessing socially engaged calm in your parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out.
A higher vagal tone means that your body can return to a calm state quickly after a stressful experience. This does not mean that you will be less activated by stressful events, but that you will recover more easily.
If you have a low vagal tone you will not recover as quickly after a stressful event. When you have a low vagal tone, you might feel stuck in high activation (sympathetic - fight/flight) or low activation (dorsal vagal - collapse) for a long time after a stressful incident has ended.
To emotionally heal from trauma and adverse experiences, ventral vagal calm must be present. Remember, you need to feel safe and calm when you are engaging in your emotional healing process, so increasing your vagal tone prepares you to be strongly present for yourself.
How to Stimulate Ventral Vagal Calm
Prolonged Exhale: Taking a long out-breath is one of the fastest ways to created calm in your vagus nerve. Breathe in through your nose and do a prolonged exhalation through your mouth.
Cold Water: If you are feeling anxious or shut down, splash cold water on your face. Or, place an ice cube on your face, anywhere from your lips to your scalp line.
Butterfly Hug: Hug yourself. Wrap your arms around your body and place each hand on your opposite shoulder. Pat one shoulder and then the other until you feel calm.
Sing or Hum: The muscles in the back of your throat activate the vagus nerve as they move.
Gargle: Another way to stimulate the muscles in the back of your throat is to gargle water until your eyes start to water.
Chanting and Humming: Chant "OM" vibrates the throat and creates ventral vagal calm. Humming is also helpful.
Meditation: Try brain wave meditation
Laughing: Watch feel-good movies and laugh with your loved ones.
Inspirational Reading: When you are feeling fearful, angry, sad or hopeless, it helps to have a collection of inspirational books to read.
Prayer: Pray to your higher power, and asking for healing support.
Loving Social Engagement: Touch and hug a loved one.
Yoga: Try the Sun Salutation yoga sequence.