Updated: Mar 10
Many people are familiar with the “fight or flight” reflexes; when deer freeze staring into the headlights, when someone suddenly rushes into a fight, or when you sprint after hearing a loud and unexpected noise. Many people will notice their hearts race, their fingers tingle, or their mind goes blank, depending on how their body responds. These are the responses of “us,” but some people also define them as the responses of our “nervous system,” the tool we use to interpret and experience our surroundings.
Our nervous system, like our brain (like being a mixed word here; the brain is the nervous system and vice versa), can develop familiar pathways. However, when I use the word “nervous system,” I am usually speaking of not only the brain, but our whole body as well, the nerves that connect to our orgrans, our heart, our fingertips.
What’s the point here?
What I’m sketching out here is that our body is deeply interwoven with our mind, and our emotional and energetic states. IE, your brain is continuous with your body, and vice versa. This is obvious, but sometimes, we can forget how to implement these obvious things.
Many of us are stuck in the “fight or flight” state; we are constantly rushing from school, to work, to doing this or that thing; we are stressed about jobs, about bills, about health and wellness, ect. The world currently runs at a very fast speed and demands quite a great deal from us. This is a very taxing state for our nervous system to be in.
The state of your nervous system matters, because it impacts how you experience the world, and your body. You can think of your muscles as hardware, the physical components, but your nervous system is the software that directs the components. It doesn’t matter how fancy your processors are; if you’re running a “rest and digest” program, then you’re not going to be able to hit your PR during a workout.
Additionally, as a physical therapist, I think it is much harder for people to approach rehab, and healing, if their nervous system is in 'fight mode.' For physical therapy to actually be effective, I often need to get my clients to be a in regulated enough place that their bodies can be open to change.
I'm going to get nerdy for a bit; if you want to skip the nerdy bit and go straight for the exercise, keep scrolling until you see some underlined stuff.
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, but there’s actually way more to it than that.
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, the brain, and the muscles of our voice.
The Vagus nerve actually has two components. There is the Ventral Vagus component, which is the newer component that evolved more with humans. Its counter part is the Dorsal component, which is older. The dorsal component is common with fish and marine mammals, and wires to the 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. Think of the D’s; Dorsal, digestion, down below, keeping it slow.
In humans, when the dorsal vagus is engaged, it can lead to a slowing of the heart and respiration rate. We need to slow our respiration and heart rate when we’re sleeping. Left unchecked, it can slow us down excessively, and lead to the deer in the headlights 'freeze response.' This is also called “shutdown.” When in this state, people describe feeling “numb,” “disconnected,” or “out of it.” You might notice someone is in shut down if their eyes are vacant, they can’t stay present with you, they can’t stay focused.
The difference between ‘shut down’ and normal rest response? Whether or not the body perceives a threat.
Even imagining a threat is still enough to kick on your nervous system’s response. Have you ever seen someone talk themselves into a panic attack, at the idea of something? This is why.
The truth of it is, our nervous system and our body are continuous, so for the body, we can’t actually tell the difference between what we imagine in our head, and what’s more physical. So, just how much we perceive something as a threat is key. And that's often why in physical therapy, or in any healing space, building a 'safe' environment is so key for healing and recovery, not just a in physical way, but on an emotional and psychological level.
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.
IE, the ventral vagus is a really fast switch that helps you assess if it’s appropriate to be socially engaged, and if not, it then kicks on the older systems of fight/flight/freeze. This most likely developed because as humans got more social, ‘threats,’ became a little different, and we needed to react to conflicts less with violence, and more with social skills.
Essentially, there are three switches in your body
Sympathetic: Mobilize, energetic → Not Safe → Fight/Flight
Ventral Vagus: Socialize, engage → Not Safe → Abusive social behavior
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. That’s essentially what the Vagus nerve is doing; it’s assessing safety, by determining if the threat we’re facing is real, or just aggression in a game. It’s the foundation for social structure.
I attached Mattias Schwenteck's breakdown of the vagus nerve, with a video and a graphic. .Polyvagal Theory explained. Somatic Consent Engagement System and Social Engagement System.
I’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 or “social nervous system state”, to bring you out of freeze, as well as out of flight.
Lie on your back comfortably, with your knees bent if it helps reduce any strain in your low back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exhale, bring your gaze back to center, and let yourself rest with your eyes closed.
This can be a helpful exercise at various times, including:
When you’re stressed, and attempting to sleep
Prior to meditation or contemplative state
Prior to any intense conversations, or during intense conversations you need to have
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.
Try it out y'all, and let me know what you think!