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The Power of Polyvagal Theory and Vagus Nerve in Somatic and EMDR Therapy

Updated: Jan 16

Safety is not the absence of danger, it is the presence of connection. Dr. Gabor Mate
Graphic stating "Have a Self-Regulated Day" with an emoji that is winking
Self-Regulation is an ongoing daily practice

Some things to help in understanding Polyvagal Theory and your mental, physical and emotional health.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The Vagus Nerve is the 10th Cranial Nerve in the body. It's name is from latin for Wanderer as it is the longest nerve in the human body. The Vagal Pathway is from the the base of the skull, through the muscles of the face to the pelvic floor.

Through a polyvagal lens we can learn to understand cues of our body and work with our nervous system health and well-being. When we are able to restore our window of tolerance (aka window of capacity), through creating felt sense of safety and connection along with our abilities to mobilize and create stillness. We have a flexible system that is able to self-regulate.

Polyvagal Theory and Nervous System States

Information graphic of the 3 nervous system states from a polyvagal perspective
Polyvagal Theory - Understanding your nervous system states

The vagus nerve is the conduit of the autonomic nervous system which is for our survival. It is based on an autonomic hierarchy of 3 circuits of safety, danger, and life threat.

The States are (see also chart)

  • Dorsal Vagal - Immobilization State, (Parasympathetic NS) This is the most primal nervous system state. When it is protecting us against life threat, it does so by immobilization which conserves energy in opportunity for movement and/or releasing hormones that numb.

  • Sympathetic NS - Mobilization State. This is the 2nd circuit of the nervous system and is our ability of movement. When it is protecting us against danger, it releases hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine, giving us super strength and quickness to flee or fight off the danger.

  • Ventral Vagal - Safe Enough State. This is the 3rd circuit of the nervous system. We are hard-connection and this is protective in our ability to have support, resource and a felt sense of safety. In this state, we experience the hormones of oxytocin and experience love, affection, attunement, belonging.

** One aspect of recovery is understanding the MIXED states which will be discussed in blogs to follow.

Understanding Trauma Recovery from a Polyvagal Lens

As a trauma and somatic therapist and an accessible yoga teacher, I spend a great deal of time helping others in recovering from the impact of trauma and the body. Trauma can be conceptualized as a way in which i the nervous system become in 'stuck on / stuck off' circuits of the nervous system. This means typically we may be stuck a patterns of cues of danger (hypervigilance) and numb ourselves in order to "turn off" our hyper-alertness toward these cues. When we have a stuck on/off pattern, this is called "dysregulation."

The challenge is we are then only to come into a state of connection in limited ways. We need a flexible and adaptable nervous system that can move fluidly in all 3 circuits in order to restore health and well-being.

Below is a wonderful video to help you understand more about Trauma and the Nervous system.

Types of Trauma

Trauma is a broad term that can mean many different types of trauma. We may be dealing with a single acute trauma or multiple types of traumas (adverse challenges) which can be a factor as to why the nervous system is challenged in its ability to metabolize the current adversities.

Informational chart of types of trauma whether acute, chronic or complex; chart of the adverse childhood experiences scale
Types of Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences Chart

In more acute and single event traumas dysregulation, clouds our ability to cultivate a felt sense of safety.

In situations of more chronic trauma, there is a lack of the resources of co-regulation, or other supports that the nervous system needed.

In complex trauma, also called Complex PTSD or Developmental Trauma, attachment traumas prevented the ability of the nervous system to experience felt sense of safety.

Trauma Recovery and treatment varies depending on these types of trauma and adverse challenges to meet the various needs of the nervous system.

So What is Self-Regulation?

As above, the goal is to be able to restore a healthy, flexible and adaptable nervous system. As we are able to self-regulate, we bring balance through awareness and attending of our internal and external stressors. We are able to move through adverse challenges and restore our felt sense of safety.

Tools for Self-Regulation

Below are some of my favorite tools for self-regulation.

The Vagus Nerve Postural Reset

The postural reset is the basic exercise by Dr. Stanley Rosenberg

The Vagus Nerve Ear Massage

Another helpful tool in working with vagus stimulation is the ear self-massage

Vocalizations - The Voo Sound

Another way to work with the vagus nerve is through vocalization. Here is the Somatic Experiencing Technique of "The Voo" sound.

This has been some basic information about polyvagal theory, trauma and trauma recovery and beginning to work with the wisdom of your body. Hopefully this has provided some resources and information in learning more about the vagus nerve.


Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only and is not for medical, mental, legal and/or financial advice. It is not therapy, psychotherapy nor a substitute for therapy.


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