The social engagement system is an important component of the foundational principles of polyvagal theory. In many respects, this system connects the mind and body practices that make application of the theory so impactful.
A significant component of polyvagal theory is the social engagement system. This aspect of the theory connects, in many ways, the mind-based and body-based physiology and skills that are developed in order to promote health and wellbeing and fully express our potential in all aspects of life. This system is an important contributor to how we engage with ourself and with those around us. As with the other facets of polyvagal theory, this system is regulated through the vagal pathways, particularly the ventral vagal pathway.
The social engagement system comprises two main categories of neural connection. One category is the interconnection between the vagus nerve and several cranial nerves that innervate the head, face, and neck regions. As a result of the innervation of the facial and neck muscles, this impacts the muscle tone around our eyes, jaw, neck, and trapezius muscles. As a result, the aperture of our eyes, our facial expressions, and whether or not our jaw is clenched is impacted by the social engagement system and reflects and modulates the activation level of our ventral vagal pathways. In addition, through the innervation of other cranial nerves, there is regulation of our hearing and voice. The vocalizations that we are capable of emitting, particularly the intonation and prosody of our spoken voice, singing, and humming are all influenced by the social engagement system.
The second main category of neural connection within the social engagement system is to the visceral organs, in particular the heart and lungs. The ventral vagal connection to these organs results in the slowing of the heart and increased variability between heart beats in conjunction with breathing, specifically prolonged exhalation with a diaphragmatic breathing pattern.
These two categories of neural connectivity originate in the brainstem and there is also reciprocal, bidirectional connection from the brainstem to the cerebral cortex. In this way there is impact on our cognitive processes from this system and also the ability for our conscious thought to impact the system, for example through alteration of muscle tone in our face and neck and relaxation of our jaw.
The bidirectional influence of this system with the cerebral cortex allows for an understanding as to how changes in our breathing pattern can impact our heart rate through the vagal break. It also provides insight, for example, into how changes in our muscle tone around our face, the degree to which we clench our jaw, and the manner in which we utilize our vocalization all can impact our physiological states. In addition, the manner in which others in our environment display these characteristics can influence our physiological state through neuroception of cues of risk or safety. From this understanding it can be seen how we can utilize these neural pathways and connections to acknowledge our own physiological state and shift our state in the desired direction. In this regard, breathing is perhaps the most powerful example. Our breathing indicates our physiological state, can be used to shift our state, and also can be used as a training method to improve vagal efficiency.
The social engagement system can reflect cues of threat or risk within our own bodies and from others on account of features such as a lack of facial expression, low pitched vocalization with little prosody, clenching of the jaw, increased muscle tone around the eyes, face, and neck, and breathing patterns with predominant chest breathing and prolonged inhalation. Alternatively, cues of safety are recognized through our neuroception both within ourself and from others when there is a relaxed facial expression with a jaw that is not clenched, softness around the eyes, vocalization with intonation and prosody, and breathing from the diaphragm with prolonged exhalation.
In the development of skills and strategies of both identifying our physiological state and providing cues of safety to our nervous system to facilitate physiological shifts and ventral vagal activation, it is important to integrate the features of the social engagement system. This applies both to our ability to self-regulate and co-regulate others. As has been discussed in previous articles, in order to optimally co-regulate those around us, it is necessary that we first feel safe. Otherwise, our attempt to project cues of safety to others will be correctly determined to not be genuine and may, in fact, become a cue of threat or risk to others. Particularly during high stakes situations, it may be difficult to truly feel safe. In such circumstances, one strategy is to return to the social engagement system features and begin to cultivate a sense of safety through relaxation of our facial muscles and jaw, adjusting the intonation and prosody of our voice, and employing breathing patterns that promote ventral vagal activation.
In the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance all available skills and strategies should be considered so that we have the best possible opportunity to express our fullest potential. This should include the social engagement system as it is an integral component to the incorporation of a polyvagal informed perspective. In so doing, we are best able to promote The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.
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.