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The Polyvagal Theory and Social Connection

By Jodi Cohen

A person with blonde hair wearing a surgical mask over their mouth and nose, with a thoughtful expression visible in their eyes, against a neutral background.

Your parasympathetic state can activate and be activated though social connection.

It’s important to note that your vagus nerve physically connects to your mouth and eyes, helping to both trigger and respond to safety cues from others, like smiling and eye contact.

In other words, our social connection helps us feel safe and turn on the parasympathetic state.  As masks are being mandated by governors across the United States, we are unable to smile at each other and activate this pathway for connection, safety and parasympathetic activation.

Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotion, Attachment, Communication and Self Regulation, shared how the mask mandate and the inability to communicate facial expressions is exasperating feelings of fear, anger, uncertainty and poor social connection during our recent interview for my upcoming Parasympathetic Summit (more information about this coming soon!)

“Through the history of humanity, when humans were threatened, they mitigate the threat response through social interaction, through being hugged, through being with a trusted individual. What we’re calling social distancing creates a problem because it takes away from us the toolkit that humanity had always used to regulate threat,” noted Dr. Stephen Porges.

Masks compound this problem as they prevent us from smiling and interacting with  eachother.  For example, Porges noted that when people pass each other in the street wearing masks, they often drop their heads and gaze avert.

“When you gaze avert another person, it’s a trigger to their nervous system. Through neuroception, it’s a trigger of being dismissed or being rejected, and our bodies interpret these reactions with our own personal narrative. We start feeling poor about ourselves, or we may get angry at the person who does it. But we have to understand that our bodies are reacting to these cues,” Dr. Porges explained.

The Polyvagal Theory

Porges’s Polyvagal theory identifies the vagus nerve as the safety gauge for your nervous system and the key driver of your emotional regulation, social connection and fear response.

As you may know, your autonomic nervous system is divided into two major branches: the sympathetic nervous system which serves as the “gas pedal” to mobilize your body and brain into your “fight or flight” response to danger and the parasympathetic nervous system, which serves as the “brake pedal” that initiates a relaxation response to restore reparative function under conditions of safety.  For simplification purposes, I refer to the activation of the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system as the “parasympathetic state”.

Vagus Nerve Response to Threat and Safety Cues

It is your vagus nerve that helps your body switch gears in response to any real or imagined stimulus or environmental demand, either catalyzing your sympathetic state in response to threat, or maintaining homeostatic parasympathetic state in response to safety cues.

When you perceive real or imagined threat, your vagus nerve activates the Sympathetic state and depresses Parasympathetic influence.  In this state, your fear circuitry, which resides in your limbic system, is also dominant, drawing important resources away from the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain where planning, reasoning and effective communication occur.

When your sympathetic state is dominant, social behavior becomes limited to survival strategies such as aggression, avoidance or withdrawal.

Once a threat has passed, your vagus nerve helps you shift back into the Parasympathetic state where your brain’s fear circuitry – that limits your capacity to effectively think, plan, reason and respond to others – is no longer mobilized.  When you activate the parasympathetic state, you start to feel safe, which allows you to calm your anxiety, connect to others and access your ability to problem solve and recognize opportunities (as opposed to threats).

The Vagus Nerve Brake and Social Behavior

As mentioned above, your vagus nerve acts as a brake, inhibiting over-activation of your sympathetic nervous system, by literally putting the brakes on a racing heartbeat through the release of the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine.  This physically calms your heart rate and promotes relaxation and self-soothing which allows you to feel safe and foster healthy social interaction.

On an emotional level, your vagus nerve also helps support heart centered communication.

Dr Porges explained that “your laryngeal control of vocalizations for intonation is actually through a nerve called the recurrent laryngeal nerve, and that’s a vagal nerve. So you have parallel vagal regulation of vocalization and our heart. So now when people are talking from their heart, you hear it and you know it, and you say, “Ah, that person is real.” What you’re really saying is the intonation of their voice is triggering in your neuroception that that person’s physiological state is calm and loving and trusting.

How the Parasympathetic State Enhances Social Engagement

It’s important to note that your vagus nerve’s capacity to activate or inhibit your sympathetic nervous system correlates with your capacity to engage with others during social interaction. Initiation of your sympathetic response triggers the withdrawal of your Parasympathetic state as both cannot be active at the same time, which has a significant impact on your ability to connect with others.

In the parasympathetic state you are better able to self-regulate, sustain attention, and calm down after a stressful experience. This capacity to regulate your emotional response and behavior helps nurture and support healthy relationships and allow you to respond appropriately to interpersonal stressors and demands.

The Polyvagal theory explains how this has to do, in part, with how the myelinated branch of your vagal nerve literally connects to your facial muscles associated with expression, vocal communication and social behavior through its activation of the muscles of the face and neck including those that influence facial expression, like smiling, and vocal resonance.   Vagus nerve pathways also support breathing, swallowing, sucking (which is one reason pacifiers are so soothing; They activate the parasympathetic state).

Our ability to socially interact – including the ability to pay attention, clearly communicate with healthy emotional expression, manage our impulses and self-regulate and calm anxiety and depression that can interfere with healthy social function – are significantly more accessible in the parasympathetic state.

“When your bodies is under threat, you retract your social engagement system with this ventral vagal circuit so that you’re more hypervigilant and more concerned about what’s going on around you, and your physiology is now more likely to be reactive to those that you interact with, whether it’s on social media or the phone,” Dr. Porges explained.

Improving Vagus Nerve Resilience to Improve Social Behavior

It is this “vagal brake” or the ability of your nervous system to inhibit chronic and prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system that enhances your vagal tone, or your resilience and ability to recover from a stressful experience.  High vagal tone, or adaptability, is critical for healthy social function.

When this vagal brake is impaired for any reason, including vagus nerve toxicity your sympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in a narrowed repertoire of fight or flight behaviors.

Activating your vagus nerve with Parasympathetic essential oil blend builds vagal tone.  If your nervous system is operating from the sympathetic state, known as sympathetic dominance, your vagal brake is not operating as it should, limiting your ability for social connection to a narrow range of defensive or escape behaviors.

You can help return your nervous system to balance and improve your ability for social connection.  That helps comes in the form of frequent activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which is easily done by topically applying Parasympathetic over the mastoid bone behind the earlobe where the vagus nerve is most accessible through your skin.

Like any new habit, duration and frequency are important to retrain your response. Activating the parasympathetic state more regularly (as often as 8 times daily) helps to build vagal tone and links to greater emotional stability, cognitive flexibility, behavioral regulation, the healthy intonation and rhythm of speech, and appropriate facial expression – all key capacities of socially skilled behavior.   What’s more, the ability to access the relaxation response also  enhances your capacity to be mindfully present in relationships.

In addition to improving vagal tone by frequently activating your parasympathetic state with Parasympathetic® blend, Porges encourages us to replace the term “social distancing” with the word “physical distancing” to maintain the value of social communication and to try to forge that connection through facial expressions as much as possible through technology.


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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.