10 Ways to Calm the Nervous System with Polyvagal Theory

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By: Danica Wernicke, Intern Master’s Counsellor at Your Path Counselling

Trauma can alter our bodies to feel constantly alert. This is a survival mechanism that the body is using to try and keep us safe but can feel tiring and unnecessary when no real threat is present. This blog post will briefly explain the Polyvagal theory and the ways we can utilize this theory to help manage trauma responses and anxiety.

Background on Polyvagal Theory

Our bodies are programmed to strive for safety and look out for danger. The autonomic nervous system is the body’s built-in security system whose goal is to protect us through constant monitoring for threats. Within our autonomic nervous system, there are two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system responds to triggers of danger that prepares the body for action to either fight or flee. The parasympathetic nervous system is located in a nerve called the vagus and consists of two pathways: dorsal vagal pathway and ventral vagal pathway. The dorsal vagal pathway responds to triggers of extreme danger and sends the body into a state of disconnect. The other pathway, ventral vagal, responds to cues of safety and allows the body to relax and safely engage with others. All of these processes are occurring unconsciously and when trauma has occurred, our security system may become activated even without real threat.

Through an understanding of these systems, we can work to reduce the sensitivity of our internal security system. The ventral vagal pathway is the cornerstone to the Polyvagal Theory. The assumption is that when we are in a state of overwhelm, we can reduce this state by activating the ventral vagal pathway through a variety of activities.

Strategies for Activating the Ventral Vagal Pathway

1. Visualization of a Safe Space

  • Find a comfortable space and close your eyes.

  • Think of a place in nature that brings you comfort, perhaps a lush meadow or a sandy beach on a warm day.

  • What can you see/hear/smell/feel/taste?

  • Stay in this visualization by taking deep breaths and connecting to your five senses within this safe space.

2. Sensory Orientation – 5-4-3-2-1

  • Look around the space you are in and identify 5 things that you can see.

  • Pay attention to your body and identify 4 things you can feel, for example, your feet on the ground.

  • Identify 3 sounds you can hear.

  • Identify 2 smells. Feel free to lift items to smell them, for example, a cup of tea.

  • Identify 1 thing you can taste and if you cannot taste anything, think of what your favourite thing to taste is.

3. Apply a Cold Compress to Chest or Neck

  • Wrap an ice pack in a cloth and hold it on your chest or the back of your neck for a few minutes.

  • Notice how your body feels, is your breath or heart rate slowing?

4. Connecting with Others

  • Reach out to a safe person.

  • This step could involve sending a text message, calling a friend, making plans to see this safe person, or writing about what this person means to you.

5. Humming

  • Hum any tune you would like.

  • Notice the sensations in your head, throat, and chest.

  • The rhythmic vibrations stimulate the vagus nerve.

6. Deep Breathing

  • Find a comfortable position and notice your natural breathing pattern.

  • Inhale through the nose and envision your breath as a wave going in.

  • Exhale through the mouth like you are blowing out of a straw.

  • Try to exhale for longer than you are inhaling and pause at the top of your inhalation for 3 seconds.

7. Stretching

  • Many videos are available online that can help guide your stretching.

  • An easy one is knees to chest where you lay on your back and slowly pull your legs towards your chest and shoulders.

8. Exercise

  • Moving your body in whatever way is comfortable and accessible to you to help relieve tension and increase focus and relaxation.

9. Muscle Relaxation


  • Similar to humming, singing can help increase blood flow to the brain and regulate the heart and nervous system.

If you are interested in learning more about Polyvagal Theory and the benefits it can have with trauma and anxiety responses, contact us to schedule a free 15-minute consultation with Danica.

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