I recently read Deb Dana’s new book, Anchored: How To Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. I had read her previous book Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging in the Rhythm of Regulation, and had really liked how it provided information on the nervous system and trauma. I had higher hopes for Anchored. I had thought there would be descriptions of concrete and tangible ways of regulating the nervous system that folks could refer to. Instead, I personally found the book to be much too word-y and filled with therapist-y meditations which I found to be mostly unhelpful.
I re-created what I had wanted in this book, in hopes that it provides survivors a simplistic summary of what Polyvagal theory is, how it works and tangible ways of reaching a more regulated state when we are activated or triggered. This write-up does not go into deep detail of Polyvagal theory or some of the more nuanced functions of the nervous system through this lens. For that information, I do recommend the book Polyvagal Theory, mentioned above. In addition, the podcast Stuck Not Broken also provides a really great summary and overview of the theory and ways to implement it in every day life.
The Vagus Nerve
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has two branches - Sympathetic and Parasympathetic, and three modes - activating (Sympathetic), shut down (Parasympathetic - Dorsal) and safe and social (Parasympathetic - Ventral Vagal).
The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. The Vagus nerve splits into four branches and connects to the ANS. Two of the branches Polyvagal Therapy focuses on are the Ventral Vagal and Dorsal Vagal branches which are functions of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Ventral Vagal branch connects to our facial nerves and runs towards our heart. The Dorsal Vagal branch runs along the back of our neck and also into our face and heart. The Vagus Nerve has been nicknamed the “Face - Heart Connection Nerve”.
The Dorsal Vagal branch is responsible for our organ function. Our Ventral Vagal branch is responsible for the regulation of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system functions of our Autonomic Nervous System and is activated when we feel safe and secure. The Vagus Nerve responds to our inner organs first and then provides the brain with 80-90% of the informational feedback the brain then uses to coordinate adaptive responses to stressors or triggers. The ANS responds FASTER than the brain. Meaning that when we are activated, we need to calm the nervous system before logic and reason can be used to make sense of what we are experiencing. The state of our nervous system shifts our perspective and the stories we tell ourselves.
Our Nervous System holds onto information from past experiences to determine safety. Although the ANS is predominately automatic and our initial reaction to perceived or real danger is not able to be controlled, with mindfulness and knowledge, the way we notice and shift when our response is not appropriate to the situation, is controllable. This is an extremely helpful skill for trauma survivors. It is also worth noting that humans have what is called a Negativity Bias. Due to the fact that our ANS primary function is to keep us alive, it will prioritize information which has threatened our safety and survival over positive memories. This is often why survivors of childhood abuse will state that they have no positive memories of their upbringing. It is not necessarily because there were in fact no good memories, but that the memories pertaining to danger and risk override the positive ones.
One of the other functions of our Ventral Vagal branch is the application of the “Vagal Break”. As mentioned, part of the function of the Vagus Nerve is to keep our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic - Dorsal vagal functions in balance. When our ANS interprets we are in danger, the vagal break comes off and our body goes into survival fight/flight mode. When the ANS determines that the fight/flight function is no longer sustainable, the body will go into a shut down response.
Once in shut down mode, the body must experience a sympathetic response before being able to regulate back into safe and social.
The challenge for trauma survivors is that because many of our nervous systems developed in high–stress or dangerous environments, our ANS’s determination of danger vs. safety is often unreliable even after we have escaped harm. This leads to our vagal break going off in times when danger is not actually present.
The Polyvagal Theory
The Polyvagal Theory was established by Stephen Porges. It is a relatively new theory, however one that I myself as a survivor deeply resonates with. Essentially, the theory describes the function of the ANS and Vagus Nerve in regulating our sense of safety in the world.
The three functions are described as “Safe and Social” (Ventral state), “Fight/Flight” (Sympathetic state) and our “Shut down” (Dorsal state). Individuals who do not have a chronic trauma history often live in the “Safe and Social” state. They inherently believe that the world is safe, that others can be trusted and their nervous systems are not as easily sent into distress. However, when chronic childhood trauma is experienced, the nervous system often functions from a state of fight/flight. There is a constant feeling of “walking on eggshells”. Energy is sent to the arms and legs to provide a physical defence to fight, or run away from the danger. Senses are heightened to try and foresee danger coming before it causes harm. The heart rate increases and the cognitive part of our brain (the frontal lobe) gives way to the reptilian and survival part of our brain (limbic system). This means that our language and memory is impaired in order to focus on survival.
The original function of our fight/flight response is to provide momentary and short-term survival instincts and responses when a threat is present. The nervous system begins in safe and social, then perceives the threat and shifts into fight/flight. Once the threat is eliminated in some way, the body shifts back into safe and social. However, what happens when the danger never goes away? What if you are powerless and cannot escape the threat or danger for years on end, such as someone who experienced developmental or chronic trauma?
The shut down response kicks in when the nervous system and body can no longer sustain the energy needed to live in fight/flight. The nervous system essentially says, “This is no longer sustainable as the danger is not going away. I will protect you will be by disconnecting you from the harm”. Shut down involves the nervous system solely focusing on keeping us breathing and alive. Connection with other humans is seen as a threat, hunger cues are altered or non-existent, memory and language is impacted, sexual drive is eliminated and there is a disconnect from the world and others that happens for the person living in this state. Often times, shut down can be seen in depressive episodes or disassociation.
In order for the nervous system to shift out of shut down, it needs to experience a fight/flight response before it can return to safe and social. The danger and harm also needs to be eliminated in order for this process to begin.
Neuroception is a term coined by Stephen Porges, to describe the nervous systems assessment of our environment, in order to determine safety. Trauma survivors who have chronically lived in a state of fight/flight or shut down, often have altered neuroception and interpret danger or threats where none may be present.
Shifting into Safe and Social
Once the danger or threat is eliminated, survivors can begin to explore shifting out of fight/flight or shut down, back into safe and social. Often times, this cannot be done without the support of a therapist who is knowledgeable in Polyvagal Theory and complex trauma.
Becoming familiar with what happens in the body when one is in safe and social, fight/flight and shut down is an important part of this work as it reconnects the survivor to their body and patterns of response. Survivors can ask themselves what happens in their body, what are their thoughts, what are their views of the world, what do they say, what do they do, what are their sleeping and eating patterns like and how do they connect with other humans when in these three states. If the patterns can be recognized, this can help survivors notice their nervous system state shifts and ensure that those shifts match the situation in front of them, rather than continue trauma responses to danger that may not actually be present.
Establishing safe connections with other humans is a key part of teaching the nervous system that it no longer needs to run in a sympathetic or dorsal state. As well as, engaging in activities that encourage a feeling of safety in the body. These may include: grounding by finding items in the room that bring a sense of enjoyment or positive memories forward, inducing a sense of awe or curiosity, extending the exhale to be longer than the inhale, shared breath or gentle eye contact with another safe human, swallowing or gulping to massage the soft pallet in the mouth which connects to the Vagus nerve, massaging the face or sides of the neck to massage the Vagus nerve.
After years of being in a chronically heightened survival nervous system state, achieving feelings of safety is a long journey. However, knowledge of the Polyvagal Theory has provided both myself and other survivors with an understanding of why our bodies do what they do when we come from trauma. This understanding eliminates shame and allows us to meet our bodies and minds with more gentleness and understanding, allowing us to develop a relationship with ourselves and move towards healing, rather than responding with frustration and anger. It is a matter of re-teaching our nervous systems that we are no longer in danger and that living in safe and social, is in fact now safe for us to do.
Calming the Nervous System Through the Five Senses
When our nervous system is in fight/flight or shut down mode, our senses heighten as a way to locate and identify potential threats and harm. Our eye sight may become more focused, our hearing becomes clearer, touch sensations are felt with more intensity and our sense of smell may become more sensitive.
When our nervous system mistakes a stimulus associated with our trauma as a real and imminent threat, I like to shift the use of the senses searching for harm to signs of safety and calm. This list provides examples of ways one can use their senses to help signal to their nervous system that they are safe and the fight/flight/ shutdown response is not needed. The more we layer these activities or sensations the stronger the signal is to the body that we are safe and can shift back into our ventral/safe and social nervous system state. The nervous system in part, interprets information received from our five senses, which is why connecting with the ANS in this way can be simple and effective.
Wrapping self in a soft blanket
Petting an animal
Cuddling with a loved one
Having your hair played with or brushing your hair
Self massage/ receiving a massage
A warm bath or shower
Holding a cup of warm tea/coffee
Using a heat pack on a part of your body
Wrapping yourself in a heated blanket
Giving yourself a hug or asking a loved one for a hug
Hugging your pet
Laying on the grass
Splashing cold water on your face or holding an ice cube
Sex or masturbation
The smell of your favourite hot meal
Outdoor smells (such as cut grass, water, forests, cedar, campfire, wet fall leaves)
A favourite cup of coffee or tea
Bath products or lotions
A favourite drink
A favourite meal or take out place
Herbs (such as chewing mint)
Candy or chocolate
Coffee (preferably decaf)
A favourite band/song/playlist (I recommend making playlists for different moods)
The sound of a loved ones voice
The sound of someone reading to you
Reading out loud
Singing/ humming to self
Listening to a loved one sing
The sound of your pets heartbeat
Listening to the sound of people (eg. Going to a park and people watching)
Photography (I recommend a photography table book to look through as opposed to scrolling on Instagram - these can be purchased fairly inexpensively via a used bookstore)
Looking at art or going to a museum
Looking at things that bring forward positive memories
Looking at things in your favourite colour
Going to a dog park and watching the dogs play
Going to a garden or animal nursery
There are also a number of ways you can calm the nervous system by activating ventral (safe and social) tone - some of these include utilizing or activating the vagus nerve and giving signs to your nervous system you are safe in other ways.
Ways to Activate Ventral Tone
Looking around the room to find items that bring a sense of enjoyment.
Inducing a sense of awe and/or curiosity.
Extending exhale to be longer than inhale.
Shared breath, gentle eye contact or smiling with another human.
Swallowing, gulping, humming, clicking tongue, yawning.
Massaging face, sides of the neck and back of the neck.
I hope this essay has provided some clarity around the basics of Polyvagal Theory and ways to calm the nervous system if you find yourself dis regulated or triggered. Understanding how trauma has impacted our nervous systems interpretation of the world and how to soothe it provides us with a way to take our power back as survivors.