Practice, rest and the polyvagal theory

I often feel envious of my cats’ ability to sleep. Cats sleep 15 hours on average and up to 20 hours a day.1  They seem to sleep so soundly but awaken just as easily. Rest is important especially when you have been working intensely or during stressful times. There is more and more research now on how information is assimilated by the brain during rest and sleep.2  In addition to restoring your energy and giving your muscles a break, your brain needs time to go off line and process the events of the day.

Lately, I have been approaching stress from a new point of view. As an HSP (highly sensitive person) I have been learning how my body needs extra downtime, sleep and rest compared to the other 80% of the population. I have recently come upon the polyvagal theory. In addition to the nervous system’s more activation vs. less activation systems, the polyvagal theory also includes a more subtle social engagement system. The activation systems have to do with the fight or flight and freeze reactions. There are two branches of the vagus nerve that control our reaction to danger and life threatening situations. The ventral vagus branch has to do with activation such as excitement, danger and anxiety. The dorsal vagus branch has to do with life threatening situations, the freeze response and shutdown. Looking at the social engagement system offers and more “nuanced” response to threatening situations.3

The social engagement system involves the connection between vision, hearing, vocalization, facial expressions and the ventral vagal system. Some therapists are now using this connection to help clients that are experiencing depression and anxiety to move out of these states. Ongoing anxiety or depression is the product of trauma. It’s as if one is trapped in the never ending cycle of fight or flight or freeze response. Deep breathing exercises with an emphasis on long exhale signals safety to the parasympathetic system. When in a threatening situation, vision becomes narrow, hearing is affected, the digestive system shuts down, the larynx becomes tight decreasing and raising the vocal range. During play, these systems return to normal signaling that one is safe. Using the social engagement system to modulate out of a threatened state is almost immediate and allows for a more finessed response to stress.4

In my own life, it is helpful to know that some of the digestive and anxiety issues I have experienced since childhood may be due to being caught in this fight or flight state. It feels like when your washing machine gets suck on the spin cycle. It isn’t really important what the original event or conditions were that caused me to be in a trauma state. Dorsal vagal shutdown is associated with digestive issues and ventral vagal activation is associated with anxiety. The polyvagal theory gives me tools for dealing with both. To move out of shutdown, one may need to return to fight or flight. Once in fight or flight, one may need to discharge some of this energy with movement. Deep breathing with long exhales brings the parasympathetic system back on line. When experiencing anxiety, it may be possible to signal calm by looking around the room you are in thereby grounding yourself.  It feels like coming out of a funk and returning to living in the moment. Practicing deep breathing exercises on a regular basis may help calm the ventral vagal system to more easily and quickly access the social engagement system.

  1. ‘How Long Do Cats Sleep?’.  purina.co.uk. (Accessed: May 16, 2021).
  2. Ferris Jabr. ‘Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime’ (October 15, 2013). scientificamerican.com. (Accessed: May 16, 2021).
  3. Dee Wagner. ‘Polyvagal theory in practice’ (June 27, 2016). ct.counseling.org. (Accessed: May 16, 2021).
  4. Dee Wagner. ‘Polyvagal theory in practice’ (June 27, 2016). ct.counseling.org, (Accessed: May 16, 2021).
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