The Vagus Nerve & Polyvagal Theory: Freeing the Body and Mind to Heal Each Other
by Dr. Kasey Huff, LCSW
Human progress continues advancing rapidly. We can achieve more in less time than ever before. Science and healthcare are still redefining what is possible. We can reach people on the other side of the world within seconds.
And yet all the while, the human brain still presents uncharted territory in understanding what shapes, moderates and changes thoughts and behavior.
In particular, severe trauma and chronic stress can have drastic effects on patterns of thinking and conduct. For many people simply trying to manage daily life, the mental and emotional obstacles from trauma and stress can be debilitating and even paralyzing.
But as always with the human condition, there is hope. We are still gaining insight into how we can re-route our neural pathways in directions that contribute to clarity, peace, and stability in our lives.
For those of us in areas such as Chicago, Aurora, Naperville and Bloomington (IL), by better understanding our body's built-in mechanisms, we can continue learning how to relax and self-regulate in ways that set us free while making us feel strong and alive.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
Most nerves travel from and through the spinal cord to the rest of our body. However, some nerves embark straight from the brain without a path through the spinal cord. These are cranial nerves.
Cranial nerves control smooth muscles of organs as well as striated muscles in the head, neck and trunk. They also control parasympathetic motor functions of the lungs, heart, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, gallbladder and digestive system.
The 10th cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, is the main neural component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It's also in charge of striated skeletal muscles of the mouth, pharynx and larynx. These muscles allow us to swallow food safely and speak.
As they are contributing to parasympathetic motor functions, most vagus nerve fibers receive sensation from those areas and send the sensory data back to the brain. Those sensations provide a wealth of information about our body and its relationship with our mind.
In particular, the vagus nerve is one of the five cranial nerves in the body's social engagement system, which involves a network of motor pathways that control the face, head, heart and lung muscles.
These pathways coordinate and connect these muscles in forming facial expressions and other bodily signals to other people (and mammals) based on how they're making us feel. What we signal tells others whether we're safe or unsafe to approach.
The Vagus Nerve: Two Neural Channels
The vagus nerve has two sets of pathways categorized as unmyelinated and myelinated.
Unmyelinated pathways – i.e. those that lack a protective myelin sheath – are very old on the evolutionary timeline. We share them with most vertebrates, including reptiles. Because these pathways do not have the myelin sheath, their messages move slowly.
Nature designed these pathways to help us maintain stability when we perceived we were safe. However, when mammals and early humans detected a threat, the pathways could activate activate a freeze response that slowed heart and metabolic rates, thus placing us in an inactive survival mode.
As life forms continued evolving, reptiles maintained only unmyelinated pathways (think of how a lizard will freeze when it perceives danger). Mammals kept their unmyelinated pathways but also developed the second, more-advanced group, myelinated pathways.
Myelinated pathways include the myelin sheath, which allows neural messages to travel much faster. These channels become information highways to our body's social engagement system, establishing a bidirectional link that guides our social interaction and responses.
First presented by Stephen Porges in 1994, polyvagal theory centers on neuroscientific concepts of brain signals and activity. It puts forth that our bodies react in physiological and neurobiological ways to elevated stress, especially when it involves perceived danger or harm.
When we feel safe, our myelinated pathways are in control and comfortably connecting us to our parasympathetic nervous system, which keeps us in a state of calm recovery. It also protects us with well-informed fight or flight responses to danger.
In the case of intense trauma or chronic stress, however, our newer pathways can overload and make our fight or flight response malfunction. In that event, our primary pathways will begin to yield to the secondary unmyelinated pathways, which will prepare to immobilize us (freeze response) to try to protect us in the face of perceived danger.
Because humans and mammals developed myelinated pathways, we did not have to use the much older freeze response regularly as we continued evolving. For this reason, when we do reach a freeze response, it is more difficult for us to return from it to a sense of safety. The freeze response can be a reaction to either physical or mental stimuli.
Repeated fight, flight and freeze responses can trigger physiological reactions such as increased blood pressure, headaches, stomach aches and insomnia. These in turn continue informing the sympathetic nervous system that something is wrong or unsafe, thus keeping us locked out of the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
The goal of polyvagal theory in treating trauma and chronic stress is to decrease our frequency of fight, flight and freeze responses by activating the vagal system and the vagus nerve so it maintains a well-functioning connection with the parasympathetic nervous system.
Body-based psychotherapy is a treatment that draws from polyvagal theory to heal from trauma and stress and restore calm within a healthy, functioning parasympathetic nervous system.
Through somatic experiencing, individuals in or around Chicago, Aurora, Naperville and Bloomington can learn to deactivate an overdriven sympathetic nervous system that is constantly triggering responses affecting mental and physical health.
When combined with talk therapy, it teaches us how to become more attuned to bodily sensations that provide useful information for clarity and stability. Just a few examples of somatic exercises include:
focusing on different parts of the body and how they feel identifying physical reactions to feelings of trauma and stress training the mind to focus on supportive thoughts, memories and images becoming aware of the sensation of relieving stress or mental pain
Specific techniques can include:
calming attention to heartbeat
yoga and meditation
awareness of different bones, muscles and organs
shaping behavioral responses (e.g. posture and body language)
Beginning Your Path to Healing and Growth
Empowered Life Therapy offers support for personal healing through the individually centered therapeutic process, including for people from Chicago, Aurora, Naperville and Bloomington (IL).
Together, we create a safe space in which you can explore thoughts, techniques and exercises for soothing the self, improving relationships, increasing self-trust and tapping into your inner wisdom and light to fulfill your purpose.
To find out more about how we can contribute to your healing and growth, including through polyvagal theory and somatic experiencing, contact us today at (630) 842-6585 or visit us at empoweredlifetherapy.org. We welcome teens, young adults, adults and older adults from all backgrounds.
Servicing clients statewide across Illinois on a secure online platform. We accept a number of insurance plans and offer a sliding scale fee to help cover the cost of treatment depending on your individual needs. We are an in-network provider for Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, United, Cigna, and many other insurance providers.