Going “All In” on the Vagus Nerve
It is probably fair to say only some of us have the “Vegas” nerve that motivates the costly trip out west every now and again. However, there is no denying that we all have a “vagus” nerve. It is this nerve that Dr Stephen Porges developed what is now known as “Polyvagal Theory.” His discovery brought new meaning and understanding to the science of the nervous system and the body. I was not familiar with the vagus nerve prior to the pandemic. However, I found myself with unstructured time and unmet educational requirements. Hence, the foundation for this post was birthed and my life-long fascination and passion for neuroscience indulged.
Dr Porges coined the term “neuroception” from his discoveries. Neuroception is essentially the reaction of the nervous system to various stimuli. It is an involuntary response where the body detects safety and danger before our brain ever gets involved. In fact, 80 percent of the communication between our body and brain is directed from the body up to the brain whereas 20 percent of information travels from the brain down to the body. It is from Dr Porges’ discoveries that a greater understanding of the nervous system states and the intricacies and challenges of these states has emerged. I believe the theory and science is rather complex but in its simplest form, three states/circuits are primarily identified and correlate with the science of evolution.
The first of these evolved states is the dorsal vagus. This involves the shut down and freeze functions. It is the immobilization process and conservation of energy used in survival. Thereafter the sympathetic system of fight/flight evolved. This is the mobilization process where there is a sense of unease and impending danger. Lastly, with mammals, the ventral vagus state/circuit developed. This is where the relational aspects of the nervous system emerged. It is a state of coregulation with others and of self-regulation. This state is where our social engagement system (SES) is housed. This system coordinates the heart with muscles that engage the face, throat, larynx, pharynx, and middle ear. Consequently, our physiology is conveyed to others through facial expression and voice. This system is unique to us as mammals.
The clinical applications of this theory are probably best outlined by Deb Dana, LCSW. The primary objectives are to begin identifying our states, turn toward them with curiosity and compassion, and listen to the story of the state and/or attend to the state in a manner which serves us best. Her approach identifies how each person describes their states with color, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors. Time is also spent identifying anchors for the ventral vagal state, triggers for fight/flight or freeze states, and glimmers of the ventral state. Movement is a primary focus of her work. Awareness and the cultivation of fluidity is paramount. Each of us has a tendency to predominantly live in one of these states. One of the greatest challenges is getting stuck in these various states. Trauma and likely certain attachment experiences are linked to this “stuck-ness.” Healing is only accessed in the ventral vagus state so this movement between states is vital in treatment. One of the most encouraging pieces of this theory is that the ventral vagal pathways are there for everyone. They may have been covered up by experience but the system both knows how and longs to be there. It is essentially our desired “home.”
Clinical applications are likely going to continue to develop from Dr Porges work. One unique approach is a program he specifically developed and calls the “Safe and Sound” (SSP) protocol. It involves the use of sound to access ventral vagal aspects of the nervous system. It is designed to help the nervous system better receive, process, and respond to cues and signals from the world. It is being implemented with children and adults.
If you were not acquainted with Polyvagal Theory, I hope you have a sense of it and possibly a desire to learn more. The ability to engage the nervous system is often (if not always) vital for change. The accessing of the ventral vagal circuit and state is especially advantageous. As science improves as a whole, new ideas and treatment modalities will continue to emerge. Consequently, new opportunities for change and healing will become possible in ways not previously fathomed and/or understood. The reality of how this science can impact the quality of life for our world and future generations is exciting to say the very least.
By Katie Evans
LCMFT, LCAC, LMFT