Well if you break it down it actually makes perfect sense;
Poly = Greek for “many”
Vagal = from Vagus Latin for “wanderer”
Theory = explanation of an aspect of the natural world which has been substantiated or confirmed by repeated testing or experiments
More than likely you’re like me and you were taught that your ANS was split between the parasympathetic Vs sympathetic. We are often given the image of these two systems embroiled in a constant battle for dominance with their only being one winner at a time. Like most epic battles there is always a baddie in this case your sympathetic while the goodie, your parasympathetic should always win out. But this is not quite right. It’s actually a lot more interesting and complicated than that.
Our ANS evolved to keep us alive. Part of being able to do this is balance what we call our body budget. For example, when you meet someone new are we going to use our precious energy to fight like mad as they are a threat or socialise and connect because they are safe?
Now this isn’t something we ‘think’ about – because if we did we would already be dead! That’s because our conscious brain networks are just too slow. The way we actually do this is a process called neuroception – the amazing ways our bodies, under our conscious awareness, are constantly scanning our world for ‘signs’ of safety and danger. It’s these signs that are the information that the ANS uses to control all those parts of our bodies we don’t have conscious control over e.g. your organs.
Neuroception is not only instant and involuntary but it changes everything! That’s because as the name, ANS suggests – it’s a system. So when you change one part of a system, it has a knock on effect on all the others. And as your ANS involves heaps of body parts it has a big influence on you overall. Now here’s where your vagus nerve comes in because it links all these body parts together.
Depending on the signs picked up by the ANS there is a ‘hierarchy’ of states the vagus will push you towards, depending on whether it picked up safety or danger. And good way to visualise this hierarchy is like a set of traffic lights;
GREEN – Social connection (parasympathetic)
YELLOW – Danger (sympathetic)
RED – Life threat (shut down/freeze)
Now when you have a healthy nervous system you can stay out of RED 99% of the time while being able to more between GREEN and YELLOW with ease. In other words, you can deal with stress. You are resilient. And a really important part of this is co-regulation.
Co-regulation is the sending and receiving of signs of safety. For example, at its most basic it is a new born baby who relaxes at the sight of their mother’s smile & sound of her voice. As ultra-social mammals we evolved to use co-regulation to allow us to feel safe with others so we can work successfully in groups.
The more signs of safety we can put in our paths the better. But we can also help the ability of the nervous system itself to detect these by a bit of strength training for our vagus. The vagus nerve is unique as it’s connected to the heart’s pacemaker allowing it to slow the heart rate, which is a powerful trigger that we are safe. To strengthen this vagal brake, try two simple hacks now;
Sighing - as it naturally extends the out breath which strengthens the effect of the vagal brake on the heartHumming & singing - as it naturally extends the out breath too
If this sparked an interest & you would like to find out a bit more about how you can build your resilience and perform at your best, then…I'd love to hear from you!