Do You Or Your Clients Have Bad Vagal Tone?
By: Nataliya Zlotnikov, MSc, HBSc
By: Nataliya Zlotnikov, MSc, HBSc
You are late getting home due to traffic. You go bursting through the front door and give a blustery, anger-filled response about why traffic made you late.
You are short with your spouse and lose your patience when your child asks you for help with their homework.
Maybe something like this has happened to you (I know it's happened to me).
Could such behaviour be indicative of a bad vagal tone? Can you improve it?
In this blog, Dr. Ginger Garner, physiotherapist and founder of the Living Well Institute, talks about the importance of the vagus nerve, the polyvagal theory, how to find your sacred space, and the nervous system hacks for a better life.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve with Ginger Garner:
If Ginger's video piqued your interest, check out any of Ginger's online courses available on Embodia
Click here to learn more with Ginger Garner
You can also read further below for some terrific content and hacks.
What is the Holy Grail of Being Well and Managing Stress Successfully?
Neuroscientists and researchers agree the vagus nerve has a lot to do with it. The vagus isn’t the only thing that drives your health, but it is a massive driver of it.
Put it this way, if you don’t attend to vagal tone, then you have to make time for illness.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The Latin root behind the term “vagus,” means wandering. The wandering nerve.
It is true the vagus nerve wanders everywhere. It is the largest nerve in the autonomic (what we used to think of as involuntary) nervous system. Most of it functions in processing and receiving input, sending information from the body to the brain.
In fact, over 80% of the vagus consists of sending information from the body to the brain, which is called afferent activity. The other 20% is efferent, which is sending information from the brain to the body. That afferent input is important because it means the vagus affects everything from the brain and the mouth and vocal cords to the colon, gut, and pelvic floor.
Why is the Vagus Nerve Important?
Stress can wreak havoc on the vagus, and create patterns or ruts in the brain that cause the amygdala, the lower, more animalistic knee-jerk reaction area of the brain, to take over or hijack normal emotional behaviour and response.
Here’s an example:
You are late getting home due to traffic. Instead of gathering yourself at the door when you arrive, taking a long exhale, and collecting your thoughts to create calm, something else happens.
You go bursting through the front door and give a blustery, anger-filled response about why traffic made you late. You are short with your spouse, and lose your patience when your son or daughter asks you for help with their homework.
You’re hungry, you still have work left to do, and you are overloaded.
What’s the Result?
Your family feels alienated and lashed out on.
Here’s the key ingredient to knowing if you had what Daniel Goleman calls an “amygdala highjack” - you regret it later.
You realize you could’ve chosen a better response. You also realize that you probably owe someone an apology, especially when, whether that person did something right or wrong, you have to take responsibility for your actions and words.
Fostering mindfulness to avoid perpetual “amygdala highjack” takes awareness and compassion – toward others and yourself.
The Vagus Nerve is Listening
The vagus nerve is always listening - always.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Glenn Doyle puts it this way:
When the vagal tone is good, you have:
When the vagal tone is suffering, you:
|Good coping skills in stressful situations||Can have high levels of inflammation in your body and bloodstream|
|Higher emotional intelligence||Have higher rates of chronic disease|
| Empathy and understanding. You are able to respond to
others' emotional states.
|Are more prone to heart disease|
|Resilience||Are more prone to diabetes|
|Better sex||Are more prone to get certain types of cancer|
|A better voice||Are more likely to have weight management problems|
|An easier time communicating and connecting with others||Are more likely to suffer from depression|
|Strong relationships and manage conflict within them||Are at higher risk for a traumatic event to lead to PTSD|
|The stamina to take on the stress and not let it beat you down||For those with epilepsy, it can be worse|
|Good digestion||For those with autism, outcomes are worse|
|A stable mood||May struggle with relationships, making genuine connections, understanding people and others’ suffering and emotions, expressing yourself, and communicating|
|Less of a propensity to get chronic diseases or depression||The most severe result of poor vagal response can be dissociation (which can be lifesaving but is not sustainable)|
To Understand Vagus Functioning, Let’s Discuss Polyvagal Theory
Developed by a world-renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory focuses on what is happening in the body and the nervous system, and explains how our sense of safety, danger, or life threat can impact our behavior.
The Polyvagal Theory gives us a scientific framework that supports the integration of physiological (“bottom-up”) therapies with cognitive (“top-down”) approaches to help change and improve how we feel, think and connect with others.
“Our nervous system is always trying to figure out a way for us to survive, to be safe.”
— Dr. Stephen Porges
There are three simple ways to understand vagal tone and response:
- If you have a happy vagus, it means the vagal brake is working and you have appropriate responses to everyday and stressful events. That is called a ventral vagus circuit (VVC) response.
- If you have a stressful event happen, you may need the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to kick in so you can fight or flee. This is called the sympathetic response. This isn’t bad, because sometimes you need this response to run or fight. However, we get into trouble if this response is the one the brain picks most of the time. No one can live in a perpetual fight or flight state, and yet the increasing reported stress levels of Americans reveals, as well as the amount of gun violence, sexual assault, and suicide reported, means we have a significant problem with stress management – aka vagal tone – in America.
- The last response, the one we may experience in life but that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, is that dissociative state I mentioned. The shutdown state. That is like the person with autism who doesn’t want to be touched and retreats in silence in a nonverbal state, eyes glazed over and inattentive, or the person that faints at the mere mention of blood; or the woman who is a sexual assault survivor or who has been abused or traumatized during childbirth and her eyes glaze over and she begins to dissociate from the present when she goes to get her annual gynecological exam. None of these are good situations and we want to do everything possible to help these good people recover.
If you're interested in learning more about the Polyvagal Theory, check out Yoga and Science in Pain Care Chapter 6: Polyvagal Theory and the Gunas with Matt Erb.
What Happens When You Have a Healthy Stress Response?
This response is called the relaxation response. This is the response we crave as human beings.
As a parent I want my three sons to know how to achieve a relaxation response, especially when they are going through a stressful time.
But that doesn’t happen for a lot of people. Sometimes you go to that yoga class, you attend church, you go out with friends, or stay home in front of a cozy fire with a book and some hot tea, and you don’t relax. You can’t. Then what?
That’s when the relaxation response switch just won’t flip. Ever been there?
Nervous System Hacks – Keep Calm & Vagus (Brake) On
Below are a few simple nervous system hacks you can use to be trauma-sensitive, manage stress, and, most importantly, improve vagal tone.
Hack 1: Not all stress is bad. Stress can be good for you! Protect Your Happy Place: Where Stress is Positive & Your Core is Strong.
Hack 2: Develop a safe space - a safe environment. It could be a room in your home, a yoga class or a certain teacher, or a church or class there. The point is to find your Sacred Space, a place where you feel safe and supported. The easiest way to imagine what this may look like is to practice the short exercise below.
Hack 3: Consider using higher hertz (Hz) frequency pitches and sound. Listen to violin music, for example, which has 5000 Hz frequency. Or imagine the sound of a mother’s lullaby, which is more soothing and is more likely to nurture a relaxation response than lower frequencies of a male voice.
Hack 4: Cut out background noise. Your middle ear needs to be in tune with and toned in order to filter out the low tones which signal a predator “run from the tiger” response. Read more by checking out Dr. Stephen Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory Pocket Guide. When it isn’t toned, extra background noise doesn’t get filtered, and the person experiencing stress and trauma will not be able to hear or pay attention to what you are saying.
Hack 5: Be careful to turn down the lights and filter light sources. The hypervigilant individual will be light sensitive and need to have dimmers or filtered light at work and home. Even bright sunlight can be too much. Wearing high-quality sunglasses and putting on blue-light-blocking glasses after sundown can improve sleep and the stress response.
Hack 6: Exhale through fear. Breathwork is really helpful in changing the stress response and “hacking” the nervous system. But several studies also stress the importance of controlling the breath by elongating the exhale, especially when you are stressed. One study showed that people perceive a fearful face more rapidly if they were inhaling through the nose. The pelvic floor is also more likely to be tightened and dysfunctional if fear is perceived and breathing is dysfunctional.
Hack 7: Movement helps. It is anti-inflammatory, nourishing to the fascia, calming to the nerves, and stamina-building for the musculoskeletal system. Specifically, sacral stimulation and rocking motions that are in a head-to-toe direction. This could mean “rolling like a ball,” the Pilates-like motion, or rolling out of the boat pose to the floor and back up again.
The autonomic nervous system is a vital component within the integrated systems-wide brain-body communication network.
The ability to regulate the autonomic nervous system for relaxed and calm states of the body and mind as well as developing resilience for varying levels of activation is important for a biopsychosocial approach to pain care.
The vagus nerve is an essential conduit for this information and provides both sensory/interoceptive information and a motor/parasympathetic response.
We can learn how to increase our vagal tone, and how to coach our patients/clients to increase their vagal tone for improved health outcomes.
If you're interested in continuing to learn with Ginger, click below to browse her online courses available on Embodia.
Continue Learning with Ginger Garner
Date written: 28 August 2020
Last update: 15 March 2023
PT, DPT, ATC, LAT
Dr. Ginger Garner PT, DPT, ATC/L is a clinician, author, educator, and longtime advocate for improving access to physical therapy services, especially pelvic health.
She is the founder and CEO of Living Well Institute, which has been training and certifying healthcare providers in Integrative Medical Therapeutic Yoga & Lifestyle Medicine since 2000. She also owns Garner Pelvic Health in Greensboro NC, which offers digital and in-person care.
Ginger is the author of multiple books and book chapters, published in several languages. She has presented at over 20 conferences worldwide and has reached an audience across 6 continents, teaching on a range of topics impacting the pelvic girdle, respiratory diaphragm, and the voice (which she calls the 3D or Three Diaphragm approach).
Ginger is an active member of APTA, serving as the Legislative Chair for APTA North Carolina, a Congressional Key Contact for APTA Private Practice, and in the Academy of Pelvic Health on the Prenatal and 4th Trimester Task Force. Ginger lives in Greensboro, NC and is a mom of four – three sons and the family rescue Lab, Scout Finch. Visit Ginger at the links above, on Instagram and YouTube.