Self-Regulation: A Polyvagal Perspective

Self-Regulation is a universal term that is recognized to mean regulating something individually. This can be many things like hormones, emotions, temperature, or even physical regulation. When we attempt to regulate something in our lives, we are attempting to find balance. There are numerous solutions to the question, of what is self-regulation, but some are more profound and effective than others. The nervous system has within it its own way of regulating health and balance, and when we are aware and participate in this process, we can heal past traumas and move out of our stuck places.

One such profound and effective solution and pathway to healing is the Polyvagal Theory. The Polyvagal Theory was developed by a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Stephen Porges. This theory is also known as the “science of feeling safe”. It is another one of the key research advancements that help us better understand our challenges and gives us a foundational framework for non-invasive ways to support them.

The Polyvagal Theory has three pillars:

  • Co-regulation: regulation through connection with another regulated being
  • Neuroception: scanning for safety and connection
  • Hierarchical 3-part Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): dorsal vagal, sympathetic, and ventral vagal states

The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system that control the automatic processes in our body. Your sympathetic or flight/fright system kicks in to either help us confront a situation or get out of it. An example of this is when you’re about to get in accident or if you are frightened and your heart rate increases, your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, digestion stops or slows, and your body produces adrenaline. Your parasympathetic system is activated either when you are past that fear or you cannot get out of the fearful situation, resulting in reduced heart rate, muscular flaccidity or relaxation, change in digestion, and slower breathing. It returns you to a state of calm or if overactivated into a state of freeze/shutdown. Look at that again…we shut down when we can’t get out of a sympathetic state when we can’t fight or flee. When we feel safe and the ventral vagus nerve is activated, we are in Social Engagement: safe, connected, calm, present, and curious.

Let’s look at the hierarchy of the ANS first. Dr. Porges is a natural-born researcher. He felt that all the experiences we have as humans was not fully clarified in the old ANS model. This resulted in him beginning his research of the physiology and the evolutionary development of it through time. He concluded that the original explanation of the ANS being two branches (fight/flight and rest/digest) that were regulated by the vagus and sympathetic nerves, was not what was really happening. It was this research that resulted in his ultimate conclusion: there are three divisions of the ANS: the dorsal or “old” vagus nerve, the sympathetic nerves, and the ventral vagus that makes up part of our social engagement system. I understand that all those words may seem intimidating. But they’re vital in illustrating three main states that we could be in at any time. Shutdown (dorsal vagus), anxious/critical/activated (sympathetic), or safe/grounded/curious (social engagement system and ventral vagus). The dorsal vagus and ventral vagus are part of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Let’s look at some examples…

I always find it best to retain complex information such as this by putting it into a simpler example. Okay, imagine a herd of sheep grazing peacefully in the grassland (ventral vagal or socially engaged). Unexpectedly, they are startled by a lion running at them viciously. Their instantaneous response is to flee (fight/flight). The lion leaps onto the back of one of the sheep, resulting in it going limp and numb, feeling little pain (freeze or dorsal vagal). The lion takes its prize to hide it in the bushes while she goes to get her cubs. The sheep senses that the lion has left, causing it to become alert and it runs away (fight/flight). Once it’s a safe distance away, the sheep has a good shake and goes back to eating grass (ventral vagal or socially engaged). There’s a sequential or hierarchical step-by-step progression between states. For one to move out of freeze, we must first get mobilized and activated (fight/flight), then slow down into safe and grounded (ventral vagal). You can think about this another way as well. Do you remember a time when you couldn’t get out of bed due to depression? Could you immediately get dressed, feeling like going out with a friend for a day on the town? I doubt it. I think that it would be more reasonable to sit on the edge of the bed, gather yourself, and take a few breaths. Next, you may stand up before walking around swinging your arms and rolling your neck. Then you would turn on some calming tunes and begin singing along out loud. Finally, you would take a shower in a more relaxed state as you continued to sing to the tune. The step-by-step progression is simple. Take small actions towards a goal using movement, voice, and breathing to shift your internal state. I know that it is easier said than done. It is truly a challenge to feel that it’s possible to change when you’re in a freeze state. That’s why it’s imperative to begin with smaller steps. Take it one step at a time without jumping too far ahead too quickly which can cause more anxiety. As you get more practice with self-regulation exercises or exercises that help to shift your nervous system towards social engagement, the more successful and useful they become. The more you are able to train yourself in non-stressful situations, the more likely you are to put them into action when it matters most!

“How fast are you going?” is another perspective of this. Look at a range of 0-100 miles per hour, where do you fall on that spectrum? This isn’t in the matter of physical speed, but the experience of your own internal state. This includes your mind, breathing, and sensations. Sometimes it is necessary to speed up and press the gas. Just as sometimes you need to slow down and press the break. Oftentimes, we can even put the car in auto mode and coast right where we are. One of my specialties is in trauma-informed yoga therapy and The Safe and Sound Protocol. In these therapeutic practices, we use specific methods and exercises to change and shift the state of our nervous system to change our internal speed or state.

Image by Matt Rohlader.

For the most part, the majority of us have things that we do that help us to slow down or get moving already implemented. Countless people enjoy spending time out in nature because it is calming to them. Why is this? Because it activates their ventral vagus nerve and social engagement system. A lot of people are more calm spending time with other people for that same reason. My husband and I love to take walks. This isn’t just because we feel better afterward, as it increases our circulation and gets our hearts pumping. Although those are positive contributions, we enjoy this because we are able to turn our heads to look around. We allow the beauty of nature into our eyes and brains, smiling, talking, and laughing, and breathing deeply. All of this stimulates the ventral vagus nerve and the social engagement system. We can consciously apply this knowledge to self-regulate once we understand how we ourselves work.

How about we try a little experiment? First, take a moment and check-in to see how fast you’re going. Don’t think about it too hard. Do you notice the level of tension in your body, the movement of your breath, and the quality of your thoughts? Next, begin to look around the room. Focus on each thing you see. Look at the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Look around completely, making sure to move your eyes and your head. By now, we are stimulating the vagus nerve. It starts in the brain and moves down through the neck and travels all the way into the belly. Now, notice an object or place in the room that is most calling your attention. Rest your gaze there for about 20 seconds. Don’t think too much. Allow yourself to gaze. Allow the image to come to you and into your eyes. Feel your body and your breath as you gaze. Then, after 20 seconds, look around the room again. Find another object that catches your attention then gaze at that for 20 seconds. Repeat this process one more time. Finally, check back in with how fast you’re going now, and how you feel. Has the level of tension in your body changed? Do you notice anything? By participating in this process, you are sending a message to your body, brain, and nervous system that we are safe on an unconscious level. If you’re in danger, of course, you would not be quiet and just look at an object with appreciation.

Time for one more example?

Do you have time to try another experiment? How about we use our breath for this one. Did you know that the messages to your nervous system about whether or not you are safe is also based on how you breathe? Your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated when you inhale. Your parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated when you exhale. This would create balance, ideally. How do you breathe when you are in danger? How do you breathe when you feel calm and safe? Changing how you breathe will also change your internal state. Now, exhale completely. Make your inhale really big, and loud, and let the exhale just be gentle and small. Repeat this maybe 3-5 times. Do you notice how you feel? Are you feeling more alert and aware? More activated? This time, try the opposite. Make the inhale small and gentle. Exhale out through pursed lips like you are blowing out a candle on a cake, lengthening the exhale as long as you can. Again, repeat this 3-5 times. Do you notice the effects? By accentuating the inhale, you can get yourself out of freeze or stuck mode. If you’re anxious, you can slow down to calm by accentuating the exhale. Practice this process at home and witness the positive effects for yourself.

Being around another person who is regulated is one of the most powerful ways to regulate yourself. Our nervous systems talk to each other, and when we are around someone else who is grounded in the social engagement system, our nervous system can shift to match theirs. This is called co-regulation in the Polyvagal System. Think about how amazing it will be to be around a calm and loving friend who doesn’t have to say anything, and you feel better. On the flip side, we can also match our nervous system to someone who is not regulated. When you’re working on self-regulation, try to surround yourself with those who are supportive, calm, and actively working on staying that way whenever possible. In the moments when we are struggling to regulate ourselves, being around someone else is a powerful and effective tool. When you are seeking a therapist of any kind (mental health, massage therapist, yoga therapist, or physical therapist), look to see what state they seem to be in. If they’re in a calm/curious, activated/anxious, or shutdown/depressed, that can influence how you feel as you work with them. Our nervous systems are constantly scanning our environment asking two questions: “Am I safe?” and “Can I connect?” This scanning happens underneath our conscious awareness and is called neuroception, one of the three pillars of the Polyvagal Theory.

What we offer

In a typical trauma-informed yoga therapy session, I design a specific protocol of tools and exercises for each individual particular to their needs. These could involve movement, breathing, meditation, eye movements, sound, or sensing. They’re all incredibly simple and may only take 20-30 seconds to do. Some practices work no matter what state you are in, and some are state specific. I also use these techniques during Safe and Sound Protocol sessions and massage therapy sessions, all for the client’s own regulation and to speed their healing process by working from the ground up in the body. Contact me today with any questions or to set up a free consultation to see what kind of session is right for you.

Want to join us? We would love to have you! 


Lakshmi Om

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