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Polyvagal Theory for Healing Trauma

Vagus nerve

What happens in the vagus, stays in the vagus!


In Latin the term ‘vegas’ means ‘wandering’, and the body’s vagus nerve stretches from the brain stem through all of our major organs to link a vast range of functions, such as our breathing, heart rate, tension levels and pain perception. This process is controlled by the autonomic nervous system to ensure that we feel calm and regulated. However, after the experience of trauma, it can be too busy continually protecting us from danger to establish the sense of safety and connection which we need to thrive. Trauma can instead interrupt our ability to regulate our nervous system, and lead us to react to perceive threats in the environment by shutting down and dissociating in a way that is completely out of our control. This can result in becoming “stuck” in survival mode over time.


To heal the deep wounds which cause this hypervigilance, a sense of safety must be re-established and this requires trusting relationships. Polyvagal theory shows us how social and emotional connection can help to replace feelings of fear with safety though our co-regulation with others. An example of this is how babies learn to self-regulate from their parents. However, it works both ways – if our relationships are characterised emotional dysregulation, then this can become our pattern of relating and response behaviour. This can also be somatically experienced in the body through physical symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, nausea, irritable bowels and acid reflux.


Not surprisingly, a healthy vagus nerve is key to attuning our nervous system, which is necessary for the relaxation and social connection that boosts our psychological wellbeing.


Here are some tips on how to activate the vagus nerve, calm the nervous system and help to gradually release embodied trauma:

-  Deep breathing

-  Holding your breath

-  Ear massage

-  Neck stretches

-  Yoga postures

-  Spine twists

-  Cold showers

-  Singing or humming

-  Listening to music

-  Gargling water


Porges SW. Polyvagal Theory: A Science of Safety. Front Integr Neurosci. 2022 May 10;16:871227. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2022.871227. PMID: 35645742; PMCID: PMC9131189.


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