The Vagal Brake

The vagal brake is the autonomic nervous system’s reaction to sensory input. Like the brakes on a car the vagal brake helps us regulate the speed at which we ascend and descend through behavioral states. A person with a strong vagal brake can move through behavioral states smoothly and a person with a weaker vagal brake will have difficulty and find themselves "stuck" in certain states. The good news is that with patience, understanding, and help people can strengthen their vagus nerve and learn to move through behavioral states with relative ease.

In order to develop a healthy vagal brake, we need to have access to strong social engagement. We need safe and supportive co-regulators to help us learn how to process our experiences and when this is absent our threat perception intensifies and we live in constant flight-fight-freeze state.

During early development, our nervous system’s are experiencing everything for the first time, it’s a new world and as children we don’t understand the mechanics of how the world works. It is the role of parents to help children understand the world.  With someone acting as a co-regulator it can be a time of curious learning and exploration, children may not know what to expect but they know whatever the outcome, they have a safe space to go to to help explain or resolve the situation. However, exploring an unknown world alone without anyone to help guide you or provide you with a sense of safety and support leaves the nervous system in a constant sympathetic state of vigilance, ready to respond however is necessary to address the threats that surround them. Our early experiences create the foundation of who we are and how we interact with the world as we age. The more access to safe and social engagement, the easier it is to pump the vagal brake and engage and disengage in the different behavioral states. 

We don’t have control over what happens to us in our early life. As we age and have different experiences our initial understanding of the world may be strengthened or changed as a result of the opportunities we find to engage in co-regulation. All the human nervous system wants is to feel safe and supported and it will engage in any behavior that contributes to it feeling that way.

The polyvagal perspective allows and encourages us to empathetically interact with others and when we apply this perspective to our interactions we can create a strong safe and social environment for everyone to grow and develop in. The polyvagal brake is something that can be strengthened through much of the practices I’ve discussed in other blogs and by working with the polyvagal theory to explore and understand yourself and discover what your nervous system needs in each moment.

In health, Stephanie Devito

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