Differentiating Ventral and Dorsal Vagal States to Promote Recovery

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Distinguishing between ventral vagal states and dorsal vagal states is important, particularly in order to optimize recovery following high demand activities.

One of the hallmarks of a polyvagal informed approach to health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance is the acknowledgement of our biological state and implementation of appropriate mind-based and body-based skills and strategies to shift our state, if necessary.  This has been described in further detail in past articles.  It is important to recognize that each of the biological states is appropriate and adaptive in certain circumstances.  What is most important is the development of the ability to shift our state if there is a mismatch between the preferred state for a given situation and the current state.  It is also crucial to emphasize that if we recognize such a discordance, we should avoid self-judgment and criticism as we acknowledge the current state.  While simple in concept, this is definitely not easy!

What follows from the above overview is the importance of understanding the unique characteristics of each biological state.  While there is some element of individual specific features of each state, there are many common characteristics across all humans.  The attributes of each state have been detailed in previous articles and are not the focus of the current discussion.  Without an ability to recognize each of the biological states, it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to reliably apply appropriate skills and strategies to either maintain the current state or shift it towards a preferred state.  Even if we have developed these skills, without the ability to accurately identify the current state, it becomes a guessing game when we attempt to shift our state.

It is important to note that it is not necessarily simple to differentiate the biological states, particularly ventral vagal and dorsal vagal states.  The difference in the extent of energy mobilization between a sympathetic state and the ventral vagal state more readily allows for the identification of each of these states.   Similarly, the increased mobilization that exists when comparing a sympathetic to a dorsal vagal state allows for these states to be distinguished more easily.  While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, given their relative distance on the hierarchy of biological states, as well as the intervening presence of the sympathetic state, from my perspective it can be challenging, at times, to distinguish between a ventral vagal and a dorsal vagal state.  In large part, this can be the result of the relatively lower extent of energy mobilization in each state, especially in comparison to a sympathetic state.

To be sure, there are stark differences between these states regarding many elements of the physiology, such as breathing patterns and heart rate variability, as well as the psychology, such as the expansive and grounded mindset of a ventral vagal state compared to the protective and detached mindset of a dorsal vagal state.  Another key difference between the states is the degree of connection to self and others.  Within the ventral vagal state there is maintenance of connection while in the dorsal vagal state there is detachment and a lack of connection.  There is, however, a similarity in the apparent degree of calm and reduced energy which can be present within each state.  For this reason, a dorsal vagal state can be mistaken for a ventral vagal state both internally and externally. 

Given that the energy level can be similar between these states, despite many aspects of the physiology and psychology being quite different, it becomes important to be able to distinguish these states.  This is particularly relevant within the domain of recovery.  In order to restore homeostasis and recover following high consequence situations and higher degrees of allostatic load, activation of the ventral vagal complex is necessary.  Importantly we are not able to accomplish this from a dorsal vagal state.  This emphasizes the significance of promoting a ventral vagal state when recovery is needed.

An example can illustrate the importance of this concept and the relative ease with which confusion between ventral and dorsal vagal states can occur.  Following a high demand situation with significant allostatic load, recovery is essential as discussed above.  Typically, when such a situation is completed, we feel tired, physically, psychologically, and emotionally.  This may lead to a desire to collapse, rest, and engage within a low energy state.  In particular, following a high demand situation involving a high degree of emotional involvement, it can be very tempting to want to disconnect and detach in order to rest.  This is where the overlap between the ventral and dorsal states can be most problematic.  Given this natural desire to rest and disconnect following such situations, we can easily find ourselves within a dorsal vagal state, perhaps without recognizing it.  In such a scenario, restoration and homeostasis are necessary and, therefore, a dorsal vagal state is not preferred as it does not promote recovery.  Rather, activation of the ventral vagal complex is ideal.  It is particularly within such a scenario that the importance of recognizing the current biological state and employing skills and strategies to shift the state as needed is crucial to promoting health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

One of the key differentiating features between the ventral and dorsal states is the feeling of connection to self and others.  Following high demand situations when there is a need and desire for rest, it is advantageous to distinguish between the ventral and dorsal vagal states and, if necessary, shift towards a ventral state to promote recovery, restoration, and homeostasis.  This also implies that recovery, while including elements of rest, is not a passive process, rather it is active and requires shifting towards a ventral vagal state.

A key element in the promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance is the ability to recover and restore homeostasis in response to high demand activities and high consequence situations.  The polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete provide a biologically comprehensive strategy for achieving this goal.  

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.  https://theplayzone.com.

Dana, D.  Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.

Porges, SW.  Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.

Porges, SW.  The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.

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