Healing Trauma Blog

Understanding and Utilizing the Polyvagal Theory

Understanding and Utilizing the Polyvagal Theory 48

Help Your Clients Understand The Vagus Nerve and PolyVagal Theory Easily

Understanding the Vagus Nerve and applying the PolyVagal theory quickly, easily and effectively is advancing the mind, body and spirit connection in many robust ways. Manage stress, anxiety, and depression by knowing exactly what is happening in your brain and body.

Most believe that the brain makes all the important decisions for life and trusts this control center of the body.  And although it plays a leading role in our lives, another stronger more influential part of our body overrides our thinking and makes decisions on our behalf.

We have evolved in many ways, still first in line in our decision-making process is our Vagus Nerve partnering with our lizard brain the Amygdala. It is connected to the brain stem and travels throughout the body with key connections at our ears, and eyelids. 

President Vagus Nerve vs Vice President Thinking Brain

 Think of the Vagus Nerve as the president and the thinking brain as the vice president. As long as operations are running smoothly the thinking brain can be smart, creative, funny, connected joyful and organized. But, as soon as there is suspicion of life-threatening hazards the Vagus Nerve takes over command. It locks up the Vice President (thinking brain) and in less than a split second partners with the prehistoric part of the brain, (the amygdala) and performs life-preserving behaviors. President Vagus Nerve orders blood around, and commands listening for high and low pitched sounds like screams, cries or thunder, as it prepares to fight, flight or freeze and even fornicate.

Polyvagal Theory in Action

The Polyvagal Theory is about our nervous system literally always having our backs. It is constantly operating in the background as we plan, work, relate, and live life. 

The deep understanding of our fascinating system termed by Dr. Stephen Porges as the Polyvagal Theory divides our nervous system into 3 parts; and how each responds or reacts to real and perceived threats.  Whether it be a trigger perceiving a threat or a real threat, our emotional system moves from a state of being in a safety zone to danger or life threat zone. The key player is the Vagus Nerve that tells us if we should scream, it makes our heart beat faster, it regulates our blood pressure and tells us when to sweat as it prepares us to fight, flight or freeze. It is and has always been the commander and chief of how we respond or react to life events and stressful times. 

Remember a time when you lost something important, like your car keys or cell phone? Remember the increased tension because you needed to be somewhere quickly?  Can you recall frantically searching? This is your Vagus Nerve in action.  What happened when you found them? Did you physically feel the relief in your body as you returned to a better emotional state? 

This is the body’s brilliant ability to automatically move from panic, back to feeling safe and calm. This auto-self-correct naturally moves one from the reactive stress state to the state of feeling safe. Our body may react with a heightened state of stress when we lose our phone, keys, hear a siren or other loud startling noise to protect us, keep us safe and connected to others.  It does a great job of keeping us alive, but its rapid ability to learn our triggers and perceive threats can also hurt us. The release of cortisol, quickening heart rate and preparation to fight, flight or freeze is damaging to our body. It is weakening our immune system and cell strength which puts us at risk for continued emotional distress and disease.  

Over 43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress...Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: Heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

 Because of the missed cues of our Vagus Nerve the triggers give us the same feeling even when danger is not present. The result can be fighting with our partner, yelling at the kids, road rage, school and workplace bullying, fear of public speaking, numbing and drifting off,  and any aggressive, violent or fearful behavior when there is no wild animal about to eat you. 

Anxiety and Depression

The constant reaction to non traumatic events being perceived as dangerous also impairs our ability to return to feeling safe and living in the safety zone of our autonomic nervous system.  In addition, if you have a high ACE score, (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or as a child you were in a constant state of stress or worry, you may be suffering from the inability to move back to feeling safe. The experience often becomes anxiety, worry, depression and persistent traumatic stress. Neuroception can overload and short circuit our ability to feel safe in an almost 100% safe environment.

Neuroception is the neural circuitry that decides whether or not we or others are safe. It also decides if we are in danger or being threatened. Anxiety, depression and panic attacks can be the result of Neuroception overload. Too many times in the danger or life threat zones, impairs the body's ability to return to feeling safe again. 

Tend to the Vagus Nerve...Don’t Talk to the Brain

Learning to regulate your Vagus Nerve can be very powerful when triggers are signaling danger. We need to be smart and creative in difficult times, not locked up.

Recognizing when your body is leaving the safety zone and moving into the danger or life threat zone, and moving back to the safety zone will unlock the thinking brain where answers and solutions can be found. Our desire to be at peace, with joy and laughter can only be experienced in the safety zone. 

By putting your attention on your Vagus Nerve you can determine what zone you are in.

When you find yourself in heightened states of stress, tend to yourself first. Be still and notice how safe your environment actually is and assist your body in calming down. There are numerous breathing exercises that can help. Oxygenating your Vagus nerve can rapidly settle the nervous system.

Learning to regulate and deescalate the sensations in our body before making decisions or having potentially heated discussions will have lasting positive effects on our emotional and physical health. We can only experience the joys of life and the warmth of connection to others in the safety zone. This coupled with the fact that our environment is extremely safe concludes that we are most of the time being triggered into the other zones.

Check out ways to regulate your state below:

Polyvagal / Vagus Nerve Chart - help yourself and your clients understand with this interactive chart then give them the Polyvagal Meter to take home.

Do a cold water re-set. There are many healing benefits to cold water showers or swims. This can help reduce depression and boost glutathione levels. Glutathione helps combat the molecules that damage the body's cells.

Detoxify your system. We live in a highly toxic environment. There is new research that shows a connection to toxicity depression and aggression. (More on this later)

Take the ACE 10 question survey - understand the childhood factors that may be contributing to your current life situation.

Take the Resilience test - Tap into the positive childhood events that felt good.

Mindfulness - The ability to switch your state to noticing positive traits in, around and about you, the planet and nature. Move from Mind-ful-mess to mindfulness.

Meditation -focusing the mind on a particular object, thought or activity will help train your brain and nervous system so that you can reach mental clarity, emotional calmness and easily find your way back to the safety zone.

Yoga - To help bring peace and harmony to the mind body spirit connection.

EMDR Therapy - Process childhood and adult traumas that may be stuck in the nervous system. 

Hypnosis Therapy - A trance like deeply relaxed state to bring positive change about.


  • Heidi Sammons