How to Map Your Own Nervous System: The Polyvagal Theory

With anxiety, depression and stress on the climb, have you ever wondered how you can understand your reactions to life’s challenges and stressors? Or maybe you wondered how you can become more resilient? Did you know that you can map your own nervous system? This is such a powerful tool that can help you shift the state of your nervous system to help you feel more mindful, grounded, and joyful during the day, and more importantly during your life. Before we discuss how to map your nervous system, let’s break down the autonomic nervous system a bit more.

The terms “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” are typically what we refer to when discussing this autonomic nervous system. However, there are three different aspects of the autonomic nervous system referred to as the polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. The vagus nerve, referred to as the wandering nerve in Latin, is one of the longest nerves that originates in the brainstem and innervates the muscles of the throat, circulation, respiration, digestion and elimination. The vagus nerve is the major constituent of the parasympathetic nervous system and 80 percent of it’s nerve fibers are sensory, which means the feedback is critical for the body’s homeostasis. This amazing vagus nerve is constantly conveying information back to our brain. For example, when we take slow deep breaths, we are stimulating the vagus nerve. This will cause the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which signals back to the brain to create this relaxation response. Pretty amazing, wouldn’t you say?

When we are in this stressed state or potentially anxious state, then we cannot be curious, or be empathetic at the same time. In addition to not being able to be empathetic or curious, we are also not able to bring the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function,  communicating, guiding, and coordinating the functions of the different parts of the brain, back online. This essentially means that we are not able to regulate our attention and focus. Sound familiar?

Three nervous system states

  1. First, our “fight and flight” response is our survival strategy, a response from the sympathetic nervous system. If you were going to run from tiger, for example, you want this response to save your life. When we have a fight response, we can have anger, rage, irritation, and frustration. If we are having a flight response, we can have anxiety, worry, fear, and panic. Physiologically, our blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline increase and it decreases digestion, pain threshold, and immune responses.
  2. Second, we have a “freeze” state, our dorsal vagal state, which is our most primitive pattern, and this is also referred to as our emergency state. This means that we are completely shut down, we can feel hopeless and feel like there’s no way out. We tend to feel depressed, conserve energy, dissociate, feel overwhelmed, and feel like we can’t move forward. Physiologically, our fuel storage and insulin activity increases and our pain thresholds increase.
  3. Lastly, our “social engagement” state is a response of the parasympathetic system, also known as a ventral vagal state. It is our state of safety and homeostasis. If we are in our ventral vagal state, we are grounded, mindful, joyful, curious, empathetic, and compassionate. This is the state of social engagement, where we are connected to ourselves and the world. Physiologically, digestion, resistance to infection, circulation, immune responses, and our ability to connect is improved.

Rather watch or listen than read?

Adapted by Dr Stephen Porges

As humans, we have and will continue to experience all of these states. We may be in a joyful, mindful state and then all of a sudden due to a trigger, be in a really frustrated, possibly angry state, worried about what may happen to then feeling completely shut down. This is human experience. We are going to naturally shift through the states.

However, when we stay in this fight or flight or this shut down/freeze state, that is when we begin to have significant physiological effects and also mental/emotional effects. As I mentioned earlier, this could be an emergency state. This can also be a suicidal state, if we are in this shut down mode for too long. If we are in a fight or flight state, we can have constant activation of our stress pathway, also known as the HPA axis, and we can really impact our stress hormones, sex hormones, our thyroid, etc. This stress will have significant inflammation effects on the body as well. All of these states can have considerable effect on our overall health, positive or negative, of course. Also, you can not get well if you are not in your “safe” state. No treatment intervention or professional will help you if you are not safe. This is why it’s really important to identify the states for each of you.

How can you map your nervous system?

  1. Identify each state for you.

The first step is to think of one word that defines each one of these states for you. For example, if you are in your ventral vagal state, this is also called the rest and digest state, you could say that you feel happy, content, joyful. etc.

When you are in your fight or flight state you could use the words worried, stressed, overwhelmed, etc.

In the freeze state you could use the words shut down, numb, hopeless, etc.

The first step is identifying the word that you correlate with each of those three states. This is really important because then you’re able to recognize which state you are in and identify with it quickly. This will allow you to really tune into your body and understand how you feel in that state, so you can help yourself get out of it.

2. Identify your triggers and glimmers.

You’ll want to identify triggers for your fight/flight state as well as your freeze state. These could be things like a fight with your boss, an argument with your spouse, a death of a loved one, if someone cuts you off while driving, etc. It is whatever things that cause you to feel stressed. You want to eventually have at least one trigger, if not many, written down for each of those states.

Glimmers are the things that bring you to that optimal nervous system state. It could be something as simple as petting a dog or something bigger like going on a vacation.

Click here for Deb Dana’s Worksheet to Map Your Nervous System

Summary

Once you can identify what those states are for you, then you can recognize what your triggers and glimmers are for that state. You can really begin to make a profound difference in your nervous system state. You can take ownership of what’s happening to your body, you can tune in to what’s happening, and know how to regulate your emotions and your responses to stress. Ultimately, this is how we can begin to develop resilience. This means being able to have respond appropriately to life’s challenges, go to that fight or flight state for a short period, and then return back to your state of social engagement. That should happen a few times a year not multiple times a day, or every day for that matter. To truly enjoy life, returning to your state of safety where you are mindful, grounded, and joyful, is a practice. It can start with mapping your own nervous system.  

If you need help on your journey, please reach out!

For more content, make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel here.

Other things that may interest you:

How to test your vagus nerve

How to improve your vagal tone

HOW TO TEST YOUR VAGUS NERVE | Polyvagal Theory

Did you know that you can test your vagal nerve function, and not only can you test it, but you can begin to tap into the healing power of the vagus nerve? Your vagus nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organs such as digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate and impacts certain reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, and swallowing. It is critical to optimal health and you can tap into it-but first, find out what state you’re in.

The Polyvagal Theory

Before we jump into how you can assess the vagal nerve, let’s talk a little bit about the autonomic nervous system. We used to think of the autonomic nervous system as simply fight or flight or rest and digest. However, Dr. Steven Porges’s work shows us that there’s much more to it and there are actually three circuits of our autonomic nervous system. This is referred to as the polyvagal theory.

Essentially we have our fight or flight state, which is also considered our sympathetic spinal activation. We also have our dorsal vagal state, referring to the most primitive vagal nerve, and indicates we are in a freeze state. This means we are shut down and feel hopeless. We are disassociated from ourselves and other people.

Lastly, we have the ventral vagal circuit, which means we are in a state of social engagement-a state of safety. This means we are connected to the greater world. We’re connected to ourselves. We are joyful and mindful. All three of these are critical and during the day we go through all of these different circuits, but most often we don’t even recognize that we do because we go through them so quickly. However, we can get stuck in these. We can get stuck in a fight or flight stress response where we’re constantly worried, anxious, frustrated, or irritated. It’s also easy to remain in a shut-down mode. We of course could be mindful and joyful. We’re constantly fluctuating.

how to map your nervous system
Adapted from Dr Stephen Porges

Check out our previous blog on “How to Map your Nervous System” here.

Breaking that down a little further, let’s speak about the ventral vagal nerve. This originates from the brainstem just as the dorsal vagal nerve does. This innervates most of the muscles of the throat, such as the larynx, pharynx, uvular muscles as well as the levator palatini muscles in the back of the throat. Whereas our dorsal vagal nerve, which is more subdiaphragmatic, innervates the muscles of the stomach, liver, and digestive system. It also does innervate the muscles of the heart and lungs. Just a reminder, the dorsal vagal nerve is impacting that freeze state, shutdown mode, whereas the ventral vagal is eliciting that sense of inner calm and relaxation and is associated with our state of safety or state of social engagement.

Testing Ventral Vagal Function

You may need a partner for this. This is a really powerful technique that can have a profound impact on how you address your body. Remembering where all the powerful neural innervations are, one of the innervations of the ventral vagus nerve is the throat.

  • Grab a partner and a flashlight.
  • Have your partner look at the inside of the mouth at the back of the throat at the uvula that drops down right in the center.
  • Now, perform an “ah, ah, ah” sound.
  • When you open your mouth, you can use a tongue depressor or your fingers to push down your tongue so the uvula and soft palate can be more visible.
  • The examiner is going to look at the uvula to see if there is a deviation to one side.  
three mouths anatomy
Adapted from Stanley Rosenberg’s Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve

What you’re looking for, specifically, is if there’s any deviation from one side to the other. If the uvula pulls over to one side, then that is indicative of a ventral vagal nerve dysfunction. If it moves up symmetrically, then that means that you are in that state of social engagement. So, if you have the soft palate moving up on one side, let’s say it’s moving up on the left side, and not moving up on the right side, then that would be indicative of a dysfunction of the pharyngeal branch of the ventral vagal nerve.

Now, that you’ve tested let’s move into how to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Vagus Nerve stimulation: The basic exercise

If your test indicated that you had a ventral vagal nerve dysfunction, perform the basic exercise for vagus nerve stimulation.

  • Lie on your back on the ground.
  • Interlace your fingers and bring them behind your head- right at the base of the skull
  • Look with your eyes to the right until you sigh, swallow, or yawn, and then repeat on the other side.
  • You may blink during the exercise.

Now that you’ve stimulated it, retest your vagal nerve and see if there was a change.

This is just one way to measure your autonomic nervous system function. This is also just one way out of many to stimulate your vagus nerve. However, recognize there are so many ways to become more aware, more in tune, and map your nervous system. You are completely in control of what’s happening in your life.

I want to give a huge thank you to Dr. Steven Porges for all of his amazing work in this area, as well as Stanley Rosenberg, for their contributions to this area of life-changing research. Make sure to check out the book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, by Stanley Rosenberg.

If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute virtual discovery session, please email drarianne@themovementparadigm.com or text 302-373-2394 to schedule. We’d love to help you get healthy again!

For more content, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR VAGAL TONE | 9 ways to stimulate your vagus nerve

Did you ever wonder how you can consciously tap into the power of your vagus nerve to trigger your sense of inner calm and reduce inflammation in your body?  The vagus nerve is also referred to as the “wandering nerve” in Latin because it begins in the brainstem and it has multiple branches to the heart, viscera, and many other organs. It is one of the longest nerves in the body and it is 80 percent of our parasympathetic nervous system, also referred to as our ‘rest and digest’ system. In 1921 a German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that when you stimulate the vagus nerve it triggers the release of acetylcholine. Why is that important? Acetylcholine is like a tranquilizer that we have the power to tap into at any point through slow, long, deep breaths. When we have a high vagal tone or healthy vagal tone that is indicative that when you inhale, you have a slight increase in your heartbeat, and when you exhale, you have a slight decrease in your heartbeat. It is also associated with better physical and mental well-being. Conversely, if you have a low vagal tone, this is associated with inflammation, heart disease, stroke, poor psychological well-being, and much more.

Now let’s get into nine different ways that you can stimulate your vagus nerve to improve your vagal tone.

1) Cold exposure: Research shows that acute cold exposure will activate the cholinergic neurons that are part of the vagus nerve pathways, and it stimulates the vagus nerve. Cold showers are the easiest way to integrate this into your life. At the end of your shower, lower the temperature for 30 seconds of cold water and aim to do that consistently over time. That will,  in turn, decrease your fight or flight or your sympathetic pathways.

2) Deep, slow breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing, that is. You’ll want to make sure that as you’re inhaling, you’re getting full expansion of your abdomen 360 degrees. The key is a slow breath with a long exhale. You could start with a tempo of three seconds in and three seconds out. Over time, you want to begin to lengthen your exhalation as well as your inhalation. As you progress with your breath practice, the slower the exhale the more you will stimulate the vagus nerve and also create that relaxation response that we’re seeking. Especially in times of stress and anxiety, this should be a go-to. For some that have experienced trauma, however, this may not always be a safe place.

3) Chanting, singing, humming, and gargling: These are great ways to stimulate the vagus nerve because the muscles of the vocal cords are connected to the vagus nerve. This is a great way to improve vagal tone and increase heart rate variability, which is a sign of a healthy nervous system.

4) Probiotics: There are two specific strains, lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium,  that are directly related to the gut-brain connection as it relates to mood, anxiety, and depression. This is directly linked to the vagus nerve as well. It has been shown that by taking probiotics, you can improve the vagal tone and stimulation.

5) Meditation: This is a great way to improve vagal tone, decrease your stress response, and improve your mindfulness awareness over time. Register here for free weekly mindfulness sessions.

6) Omega-3’s: This comes from your fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, etc. These are great foods that can help with improving vagal tone, overall mental health, and cognitive decline if there is any. Make sure to eat your fatty fish regularly to ensure you’ve got the appropriate amount of omega-3’s.

7) Massage: Make sure you get regular massage, or perform self-massage, to enhance the vagal activity and improve vagal tone. Things like foot reflexology is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve. At the minimum, make sure to get your regular massage.

8) Exercise: Movement is such a powerful way to improve your vagal tone, to be more connected, and to enhance your sense of happiness. Making exercise and activities that you enjoy a big part of your life will help to improve your vagal tone and overall happiness.

9) Socializing and laughing: It’s such a great way to improve mood and enhance overall well-being. That of course is happening by enhancing the vagal activity and once again improving overall vagal tone. Make sure that despite the current circumstances in the world, you’re able to connect with people, socialize and laugh, and enjoy life as much as possible.

So there you have it, nine different ways that you can improve your vagal tone to make sure that you’re more connected to the world, you’re enhancing your physical and mental well-being, and you’re living life to the fullest.

If you need help on your journey to better health, contact drarianne@themovementparadigm.com to schedule.

For more content, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

How to Map Your Own Nervous Sytem: The Polyvagal Theory

With anxiety, depression and stress on the climb, have you ever wondered how you can understand your reactions to life’s challenges and stressors? Or maybe you wondered how you can become more resilient? Did you know that you can map your own nervous system? This is such a powerful tool that can help you shift the state of your nervous system to help you feel more mindful, grounded, and joyful during the day, and more importantly during your life. Before we discuss how to map your nervous system, let’s break down the autonomic nervous system a bit more.

The terms “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” are typically what we refer to when discussing this autonomic nervous system. However, there are different aspects of the nervous system referred to as the polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. The vagus nerve, referred to as the wandering nerve in Latin, is one of the longest nerves and is a cranial nerve that originates in the brainstem and innervates the muscles of the throat, circulation, respiration, digestion and elimination. The vagus nerve is the major constituent of the parasympathetic nervous system and 80 percent of it’s nerve fibers are sensory, which means the feedback is critical for the body’s homeostasis. .Pretty amazing, wouldn’t you say?

When we are in this stressed state or potentially anxious state, then we cannot be curious, or be empathetic at the same time. In addition to not being able to be empathetic or curious, we are also not able to break the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function,  communicating, guiding, and coordinating the functions of the different parts of the brain, back online. This essentially means that we are not able to regulate our attention and focus. Sound familiar?

Three nervous system states

  1. First, our “fight and flight” response is our survival strategy, a response from the sympathetic nervous system. If you were going to run from tiger, for example, you want this response to save your life. When we have a fight response, we can have anger, rage, irritation, and frustration. If we are having a flight response, we can have anxiety, worry, fear, and panic. Physiologically, our blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline increase and it decreases digestion, pain threshold, and immune responses.
  2. Second, we have a “freeze” state, our dorsal vagal state, which is our most primitive pattern, and this is also referred to as our emergency state. This means that we are completely shut down, we can feel hopeless and feel like there’s no way out. We tend to feel depressed, conserve energy, dissociate, feel overwhelmed, and feel like we can’t move forward. Physiologically, our fuel storage and insulin activity increases and our pain thresholds increase.
  3. Lastly, our “rest and digest” is a response of the parasympathetic system, also known as a ventral vagal state. It is our state of safety and homeostasis. If we are in our ventral vagal state, we are grounded, mindful, joyful, curious, empathetic, and compassionate. This is the state of social engagement, where we are connected to ourselves and the world. Physiologically, digestion, resistance to infection, circulation, immune responses, and our ability to connect is improved.

Rather watch or listen than read? Click here

Adapted by Dr Stephen Porges

As humans, we have and will continue to experience all of these states. We may be in a joyful, mindful state and then all of a sudden due to a trigger, be in a really frustrated, possibly angry state, worried about what may happen to then feeling completely shut down. This is human experience. We are going to naturally shift through the states. However, when we stay in this fight or flight or this shut down/freeze state, that is when we begin to have significant physiological effects and also mental/emotional effects. As I mentioned earlier, this could be an emergency state. This can also be a suicidal state, if we are in this shut down mode for too long. If we are in a fight or flight state, we can have constant activation of our stress pathway, also known as the HPA axis, and we can really impact our stress hormones, sex hormones, our thyroid, etc. This stress will have significant inflammation effects on the body as well. All of these states can have considerable effect on our overall health, positive or negative, of course. Also, you can not get well if you are not in your “safe” state. No treatment intervention or professional will help you if you are not safe. This is why it’s really important to identify the states for each of you.

How can you map your nervous system?

  1. Identify each state for you.

The first step is to think of one word that defines each one of these states for you. For example, if you are in your ventral vagal state, this is also called the rest and digest state, you could say that you feel happy, content, joyful. etc.

When you are in your fight or flight state you could use the words worried, stressed, overwhelmed, etc.

In the freeze state you could use the words shut down, numb, hopeless, etc.

The first step is identifying the word that you correlate with each of those three states. This is really important because then you’re able to recognize which state you are in and identify with it quickly. This will allow you to really tune into your body and understand how you feel in that state, so you can help yourself get out of it.

2. Identify your triggers and glimmers.

You’ll want to identify triggers for your fight/flight state as well as your freeze state. These could be things like a fight with your boss, an argument with your spouse, a death of a loved one, if someone cuts you off while driving, etc. It is whatever things that cause you to feel stressed. You want to eventually have at least one trigger, if not many, written down for each of those states.

Glimmers are the things that bring you to that optimal nervous system state. It could be something as simple as petting a dog or something bigger like going on a vacation.

Click here for Deb Dana’s Worksheet to Map Your Nervous System

Summary

Once you can identify what those states are for you, then you can recognize what your triggers and glimmers are for that state. You can really begin to make a profound difference in your nervous system state. You can take ownership of what’s happening to your body, you can tune in to what’s happening, and know how to regulate your emotions and your responses to stress. Ultimately, this is how we can begin to develop resilience. This means being able to have respond appropriately to life’s challenges, go to that fight or flight state for a short period, and then return back to your state of social engagement. That should happen a few times a year not multiple times a day, or every day for that matter. To truly enjoy life, returning to your state of safety where you are mindful, grounded, and joyful, is a practice. It can start with mapping your own nervous system.  

If you need help on your journey, please reach out!

For more content, make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel here.