The Dorsal Vagal System

by | Mar 3, 2023

The Dorsal Vagal System

In an earlier post, I talked about the sympathetic system that helps get you motivated to action. But what calms down that acceleration? The parasympathetic system, or “rest and digest” system, helps calm down respiration and heart rate to help get your digestion working again (digestion is one system that gets shut down during fight or flight). The PNS helps you get back to balance.

Those deep breaths you take to help calm yourself down when you’re stressed–that helps reset the parasympathetic system.

The dorsal vagal system is the system of shutdown

There are two vagal pathways within the PNS: dorsal and ventral. Ventral is that space of connection and safety we feel as things return to balance. The dorsal vagus is a nerve that is common in all mammals and goes down the spine (think dorsal fin). Normally, it’s very helpful in regulating between arousal and relaxation.

What happens in chronic stress?

When stress is unrelenting, the dorsal vagus kicks in to help us freeze. It’s the system of shutdown–kind of like a shutdown lever you’d pull in case of extreme emergency. Think of a turtle freezing and pulling into its shell.

In shutdown you feel checked out, numb, disconnected, and burned out. You know those moments when you reach for the “I just can’t adult today” mug? That’s your dorsal vagus.

 

green background with ecru turtle. text reads: your dorsal vagal system is like a turtle

When our dorsal vagal system kicks in, we retreat or go into shutdown mode, much like a turtle withdrawing into its shell.

What do dorsal vagal responses look like?

Dorsal vagal responses can look like

  • going through the motions or being on autopilot
  • feeling checked out
  • feeling numb or disconnected
  • immobilization

How can I get moving again?

  • Check in with your senses. Reconnect with your body
  • Do some yoga or go for a walk
  • Listen to some uplifting music
  • Connect with a friend or beloved pet

 

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