The Sensations of Safety: Getting into the Ventral Vagal State
By Amy Groven, LMFT
Polyvagal Theory is a groundbreaking concept in the field of psychology and neuroscience that helps us understand how our nervous system influences our emotional states and behavior. It explains that we have two different branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system and that they can be broken down in to smaller parts known as the polyvagal nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight responses. The parasympathetic nervous system can be broken down into the dorsal vagal system (shut down response) and the ventral vagal system. The ventral vagal system is responsible for helping us feel safe, connected, and socially engaged. It helps us regulate our emotions, connect with others, and experience positive emotions like joy and love.
We all know that alarming feeling when we are in fight or flight and our sympathetic nervous
system is activated. Our heart beats fast, we get sweaty, our stomachs turn into knots, our legs and hands get fidgety, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. Anxiety sets in and our thoughts can become racing or hard to grasp, or we can start to ruminate and obsess over them. We can become hyper vigilant and our anxiety can quickly become a chronic problem for us.
On the other hand, sometimes things can become too much for us and our nervous systems become overwhelmed and shut down. This can feel like numbness, floating away, a disconnection from reality and the body, and a distortion of time passing by (like losing hours of the day and not remembering what happened during that time). Clinical terms for these states of being may be called dissociation, depersonalization or derealization.
After trauma happens, the nervous system becomes sensitized and the body wanting to be safe logs those traumas into the body, causing activation when anything reminds us of the trauma. It becomes harder to feel safe and connected to others, which is what we feel when we are in the ventral state of our nervous system.
So how can we get into the ventral vagal state? Here are some tips:
1. Focus on your breathing: Slow, deep breathing can help activate the ventral vagal system and calm down the sympathetic nervous system. Try breathing in for four seconds, holding for four seconds, and breathing out for eight seconds.
2. Engage in social activities: Spending time with friends or family, engaging in hobbies, or volunteering can help activate the ventral vagal system and create a sense of connection.
3. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, or tai chi can help us become more aware of our physical sensations and emotions, which can help us regulate our nervous system.
4. Practice self-compassion: Being kind and compassionate to ourselves can help us feel safe and connected, which can activate the ventral vagal system. Try offering yourself words of encouragement or imagining yourself being comforted by a loved one.
5. Seek therapy: Working with a therapist trained in Polyvagal Theory can help you identify and regulate your nervous system responses, and improve your ability to access the ventral vagal state.
Getting into the ventral vagal state using Polyvagal Theory can help us feel safe, connected, and socially engaged. By focusing on our breathing, engaging in social activities, practicing mindfulness, practicing self-compassion, and seeking therapy, we can learn to regulate our nervous system and experience more positive emotions and behaviors. This can help us overcome trauma and help us move from being survivors of trauma to being thrivers in our lives.