Ventral Vagal or Social Engagement system – The scientific story of Attachment and Self-Regulation
The ventral vagal part of parasympathetic nervous system is situation above the diaphragm and is strongly connected to heart and facial muscles. This means that to strengthen the ventral vagal tone, the heart and facial muscles have to be stimulated.
When babies are born, their nerves of ventral vagus of parasympathetic nervous system are not completely developed to function at its best, but they come with a strong potential and takes about first 5 years to develop to its fullest. This means that when a tiny baby is living in the same environment as an adult (parents/ caregivers), the amount of stimulation received is normal to that of an adult. For e.g.: people or family members visiting (new faces, sounds), mobile phones clicking pictures, walls and lights in the room, sounds from outside, and babies are already living inside a body to fragile to just eat, breathe and poop. Especially, in cases of sensitive deliveries. All of this can accumulate to be sensory overload and sometimes can be stressful for the new and under developed nervous system.
So, with human’s adaptive potential, the baby may scream or cry, may hold his/her breath to rebel or express the unwillingness to attend. When this happens the baby’s SNS gets activated to help him/her cope. By holding, hugging, rocking, looking in their eyes and smiling, parents making funny faces for the baby to look at, baby’s ventral vagal circuit sparks and as it directly connects to heart, it lowers the heart rate. (This means spending more time in PNS – rest/digest or ventral vagal system). Resulting in development of attachment/safe bond between baby and parents (especially mother). This is how the adaptive potential is polished up with good connection/attunement. This how is a parent/caregiver can help prepare the baby to self-soothe or self-regulate or strengthens the threshold to deal with stress in later years.
We, as adults need this same safely bonded good connection as well.
Making sense of the WHYs in Part 1
· Now whenever the parent tries to scold, punish the child to control their behaviour, be it tantrums or making the child study, the child experiences shame (freeze) or deep fear and this scared emotion activates the SNS fight or flight system. The frequently child experiences scolding, the more time body stays in SNS and the body adapts to stress. Hence, while and after growing up, as an adult that individual will show anxiety and tension when and would want everything in its control. As a result, tendency of acting out as a “perfectionist”.
· The child, at young age is highly co-dependent on the caregiver for fulfilling all kinds of needs, and if the caregiver is absent most of the time, the child’s feels itself responsible for meeting their survival needs (body’s SNS activated and stays in this zone), and as a result, child is unaware of the emotional needs that are important to be fulfilled in order for healthy nurturance. After growing up, when its time to develop relationships/friendship, such individuals are unaware and lack ability to communicate their emotional needs and form healthy connections (weak ventral PSNS). These individuals are more likely to present silent responsive or passive aggression during conflicts. (Body activates dorsal PSNS – Freeze).
· It’s very common to come across trust issues and insecurities in people in the evolved dating era. Factors like the inner confusion, adrenaline, conditioned self-critical inner voices, fear of getting hurt, etc leads to a lot of overthinking and analysing, hence causing stress and allowing brain to override our physiological responses with cortisol. The body again activates the SNS part and inhibits the social engagement part of PSNS. This very dysregulation in our nervous system in one of the root reasons why people fail to express their authentic self and ride the journey of their bonding under influence of emotionally unsafe feelings. You must have com across videos of how “a minute of eye contact is enough to make people fall in love”. Well! the secret is that when 2 people approach each other with a relaxed body and calm nervous system, it allows themselves to co-regulate and eye contact directly stimulates the ventral vagal part of PSNS, hence establishing a strong and safe bond and feeling as connected to call it “love”.
· In our Indian Culture, almost 1 out of 5 middle-aged women would be suffering from diseases like IBS, Migraines, Thyroid, Hypertension, Arthritis and treating it with life long medicine, but no permanent cure. These diseases are diagnosed as psycho-somatic or genetically expressed. Polyvagal research science has proven them to be a sign of stored emotional trauma in their body. Trauma of supressed emotions, emotion stress of living unhappy married lives out of interpersonal issues and over worked dysregulated nervous system. The more amount of time body stays in an unhappy, unloving and stressful environment, the body adapts to fight/flight/freeze state. As a result, the continuous amount of adrenaline and cortisol leads to weaker gut, more inflammation, hypervigilant sensory system etc. Yes, we can say that migraines and IBS are nothing but physiological expression of years and years of stored anxiety, depression and trauma.
As new age this as this simplified explanation of complex problems is, as old-aged and simple the cure is,
1. During fight/flight – as body is on over energetic mode
ð Cold Showers
2. During Freeze – as body is on power saver mode
ð Walk in nature
By indulging yourself in these easy activities, consistently, you are intentionally signalling your body that “everything is in control” and “you are safe”. All these activities are enjoyable and allow your body to intentionally relax and stay in “Rest and Digest” mode for a longer period of time. Also, it will instil the inner connection which will allow you to self-soothe and strengthen your ventral vagal tone of nervous system. Hence, becoming better at developing connections, listening, and more patience and loving.
The age-old wisdom of “early to rise and exercise” is completely on point. It’s just we were always commanded and never taught through a logical way. It keeps your circadian rhythm in sync and nervous system regulated.
You can always choose therapy as a helping mode as therapy is not always about talking and catharsis but to allow you to “just be” yourself with a co-regulated individual. Therapists also play a role of early childhood caregiver that was never there to model self-regulation for you.
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