This is the next part of the long series where I explain how to use somatic psych theory t0 improve your relationship with your body, connect with your intuition, and prepare yourself for trauma work. Thanks for coming back!
is the basics of the autonomic nervous system – the starting point to having a better understanding of the connection between your mind and body and how to figure out your emotions.
is a video (plus transcription) using a visual (Daniel Siegal’s Hand Model) to explain the basics for the visual learners out there.
is a post where I go deeper explaining our sympathetic’s nervous system’s fight/flight response.
And here is where I explain more about the 1st and oldest part of our parasympathetic nervous system, our dorsal vagus and its shutdown response.
NOTE: Literally right when I was in the middle of writing this, Forbes published an article reporting that many Long COVID symptoms may be related to damage caused to the vagus nerve by COVID viral infections. Learning your body, how it communicates, and how to respond to its needs may become even more essential in an actual post-COVID world.
Today, we are going a bit deeper into the 2nd and youngest part of our parasympathetic nervous system – our ventral vagus while we start to answer the question: How do we know when we are safe?
The Ventral Vagus and the Body
So often in the field of psychology and in therapy, the focus is on trauma, triggers, and what the brain and body look and feel like when things are popping off. It’s actually a nice change to spend some time on what our bodies feel like at rest and when we are solidly connected to ourselves and others.
Our ventral vagus is part of what makes that possible.
So let’s get into the neurobiology of this, if you don’t mind.
Social Engagement Center
As a reminder (I 1st mentioned this here
), our ventral vagus is the 2nd part of our larger vagus nerve that connects our brain stems to our faces, and the rest of our bodies. The ventral vagus specifically regulates organs above our diaphragms, like the heart and lungs, and connects them with with nerves in our faces.
And this link that our ventral vagus creates between our brain stem, heart, and the muscles in our faces (connected to our facial expressions), the muscles in our middle ear (connected to our ability to listen), and the muscles in our larynx/voice box (connected to how we speak) is what is known as our Social Engagement System.
The social engagement system’s whole function/whole purpose in life/whole raison d’être is to send, search for, and receive signs of safety to and from other people AND to and from the environment. And it does this through our facial expressions, tone of voice, the patterns in our speech, and our body language. Through our social engagement systems, we send invitations from 1 nervous system to another – “Do you wanna link up? Yes or No?” I’ll get into this more in the future: when I’m talking about co-regulation and its function in community building, when I cover specific somatic exercises, when I remix my deescalation piece, etc.
Physical Effects on the Body
Ok so let’s get back to into talking about ventral vagal activation aka what the body can feel like at rest (This may seem like something self-explanatory, but many people have lived their entire lives in a survival state and have never intentionally experienced rest or are not even sure what rest looks like. This is for them).
Effects on the Heart
Without the need for hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to get us up and moving, our bodies start to settle down. You may notice a lower heart rate and lower blood pressure here in a ventral vagal state.
Effects on the Lungs and Diaphragm
When your ventral vagus is activated, the heavy, quick, short breaths of fight/flight and the slower breaths of shutdown go away. And it’s replaced by calmer, deeper regular breathing, meaning more oxygen to the brain, which can give you a clearer head.
Effects on the Muscles in the Face
All the stress from a fight/flight state melts away from the muscles in the face so you might notice softer eyes, more smiling, and less overall tension in the face, which affects the facial expressions we make.
Effects on the Larynx/Voice Box
Think about how you talk when you are depressed vs when you are anxious or angry vs when you are chilling. Ventral vagal activation affects the tone of our voice and how we speak. And it’s even connected to the ability to swallow and sing.
Effects on the Middle Ear
In a ventral vagal state, it is easier to listen to what people are saying instead of being hyper-alert or emotionally distant. And it’s easier to receive soothing and comforting words from people when you are not in survival mode.
The Vagal Brake
We just covered what ventral vagal activation looks like and feels like in the body. Now, let’s talk about how the ventral vagus works and how it helps us function.
Deb Dana, the author of “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation”, describes how the the ventral vagus works in the body, comparing it to brakes on a bike. When the autonomic nervous system (ANS) recognizes signs of danger, the vagal brake relaxes, which allows some energy from our sympathetic nervous system to flow in so we are motivated to do whatever needs to be done. When the ventral vagal brake is engaged/”squeezed”, that sympathetic energy is stopped and we are able to relax and connect with others. When it’s working at its best, the ventral vagus is capable of relaxing a little so you can enough fight/flight energy to address something and then reengage to bring your autonomic nervous system go back into balance. The ventral vagus not only helps us be chill, but it also helps us navigate all the stimulation, the complicated cues in your environment, and the changes in your social and community relationships.
I’ll get into this later, but chronic trauma, abuse, and neglect damages the vagal brake and your ventral vagus’s ability to regulate itself, leading to chronic dorsal vagal shutdown and/or living in a constant fight/flight state. This is how someone’s nervous system may respond to a smaller stress like it’s a huge danger by shutting down or going into a fight/flight state because that’s what their body is used to after being forced to live in a survival state for so long. That’s their body’s major tool in dealing with every issue, just code red, high-level crisis response to everything. Smaller stresses feel REALLY overwhelming after years and years of constantly fighting to survive. But don’t worry, the damage is not permanent. Somatic work with a trained professional can help you strengthen your vagal brake slowly and carefully so you can build a stress tolerance while also building closer relationships with yourself and your community.
Looking with Clearer Eyes
Just like the other 2 parts of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the ventral vagus has a huge effect on how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see the world around us. The ventral vagus is a state of mind where it is so, so much easier to see and explore your options. When you’re in a survival mode, everything feels so black/white, you might not have the energy to consider everything, etc. It’s very common for people to feel some guilt or shame about choices they made when in a fight/flight or shutdown state. And while people should absolutely hold themselves accountable for any harm they caused others and harm they caused themselves, it is also important to remember that you are able to see what you coulda, shoulda done now because your brain is no longer in that state. The ventral vagus is a place where you learn actual grace and show yourself love by actually learning what self-love feels like for your body specifically.
Not only does the ventral vagus makes it easier to see things more clearly, it also helps us be able to name the things and people causing or adding to our stress. Very often, when you are in the thick of it, it can be hard to see what is actually the cause of what we are dealing with. And that makes it hard to address it. Once you learn how to get more sustainably regulated, you start noticing things you couldn’t really notice before and it can get harder and harder to ignore it. A lot of time, the answer is complex. Some of the problem(s) is probably systemic oppressions and socialization
. You really start noticing how messed up the world is and people can start to feel more sad and angry as their mind clears up. You may start to notice that you have less tolerance for things that seemed just too hard to even think about changing before. Some of it is very, very likely the environment – work stress, the relationships in your lives, the state of the home you live in, etc. And some of it is you. You are sometimes the drama. And I mean that not in a victim-blaming way. The abuse and trauma you have suffered is NEVER your fault. And also, like I mentioned earlier in this piece, part of this clarity also involves holding yourself accountable for the ways you have harmed yourself and others. And along with a clearer mind, you may notice your priorities and values start to change and ideally, you start to feel like the way you move in the world has to change along with it.
Part of what makes this personal somatic work so essential in community building is learning your body and learning how to not harm others regardless of what your nervous system is doing. And if you do harm someone, how you and your community can incorporate what we know about the body to intentionally and genuinely support restitution.
AND having the relationship with yourself and related tools in place to regulate yourself and/or co-regulate with community allows y’all to look at situations with a clearer mind while making it easier for folks to figure out how safe something/someone is and to manage conflicts in a way that aligns more consistently with your/their values instead of repeating trauma patterns or replicating systemic oppressions. Working on your vagal brake alone (and in community when possible) allows you to react without acting from a place where you are controlled by anger or anxiety or from a place of emotional disconnection. And you are able to determine your actual community and who is safer to build with. It is also the difference between rushing to “conflict resolution” instead of intentionally making sure that everyone’s nervous systems have what they need to be open to connection.
Learning Your Ventral Vagus
Learning how your ventral vagus works in your body in different situations and how to engage it on purpose when you need to what I like to describe as the fun part of somatic work. Playing around and intentionally exploring the things, people, and parts of life that feel pleasurable, fun, exciting, rewarding, etc and learning how to sit in these moments without becoming overwhelmed or wondering when the shoe is gonna drop. Learning how to choose to be present enough to enjoy these moments so completely that you can use them as leftovers later. And these leftovers actually can be used as tools and resources you can use to regulate your nervous system and emotions in the future.
Part of this work also involves learning what rest, connection, and safety even feels like. Giving yourself permission to learn and listen to your nervous system and body around what feels safe to you and why.
Some questions to consider:
How do you know when you are safe? What does it feel like physically? And where in your body do those feelings live?
What are the things/moments are in your life that feel safe, rewarding, exciting, interesting, calming, comforting, etc to you? What things give you a dopamine rush?
What makes you feel connected to yourself? When do you feel the most connected to yourself?
Like I’ve done for the other 2 parts of the ANS, I want to cover the spectrum of feelings that one can feel when the ventral vagus is activated.
Some related ventral vagal feelings:
The 3 Goals of Somatic Work (in my opinion):
The point of somatic work is not to force yourself to be in a ventral vagal state all the time. We’re not trying to use tools to make yourself feel a particular way. Do not try (key word “try” because that’s a waste of time. You’re not winning that battle at the end of the day) to dominate your body using somatic exercises.
The point of all this is to let yourself feel and be in relationship with your body. To learn and understand what it’s trying to communicate to you about what you need in a given situation and also to learn how you should respond to what you are feeling.
And the point is to get to a place where when you can not only identify and acknowledge how you feel, but also know how to use your relationship with yourself to regulate your emotions – meaning, like, knowing what to do if it’s not safe to feel that at this time, how to put it aside for a little bit to address something else without locking it away forever, how to circle back to the feeling later, how to savor the present intentionally so your successes and positive moments don’t feel like water slipping through your fingers, how to bring a better version of yourself to interpersonal and community conflicts so bridges don’t get burned, how to honor the most marginalized in your community by actually addressing the socialized cop/oppressor that lives in us all, etc.
The next post is going to cover situations where 2 or more parts of your ANS work together and the neurobiological reasons why your elders told you to be careful about play fighting with people – Why, in a blink of an eye, the play part can end and the fighting, fighting starts.
Thanks for reading!