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What is the vagal break? Why is it important? How does the application of the vagal break impact our daily function?
Many of the concepts and principles of Polyvagal Theory have been described in prior articles within this series. The nature and recognition of the various biological states, including the blended states, have been discussed in detail with the understanding that there are adaptive situations for each of the states, as well as scenarios in which each state may be suboptimal for the task at hand. The polyvagal informed strategies and skills to shift between states have also been illustrated across different situations. One aspect that is important to describe further is the manner in which we can influence the overlap and shifts back and forth between the ventral vagal and sympathetic states. The ability to modulate these shifts are central to our ability to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.
The polyvagal informed perspective allows us to understand how the numerous internal and external cues and stimuli can lead to shifts in our biological states, including between ventral vagal and sympathetic states. This paradigm also allows us to better implement mind-based and body-based skills and strategies to intentionally shift between the various biological states. In order to influence the degree of mobilization within our biology with the greatest degree of fidelity, it is beneficial to modulate the relative contributions of ventral vagal and sympathetic activation. There are numerous scenarios in which we would benefit from additional mobilization of energy from the starting point of the ventral vagal state. This may take the form of physical, psychological, or emotional mobilization. Simultaneously, we may not need, or want, full sympathetic activation for the same situation. In this situation we are intentionally attempting to access what Michael Allison refers to as the blended state with both ventral vagal activation and elements of sympathetic mobilization. As he describes, this is the optimal state for performance.
A polyvagal informed understanding of our biology allows us to better modulate our responses to internal and external cues and stimuli, thereby allowing us to access this blended state. This is most evident through the concept of the vagal break. In essence, the vagal break is the process by which we are able to control the relative contributions and effects of ventral vagal stability and sympathetic mobilization to our biological state through the direct innervation of the vagus nerve on the sinoatrial node. The blended state is not static, rather it is a continuum between the full ventral vagal state on one end and complete sympathetic activation on the other. Conceptually, the vagal break effectively allows us to fine tune our biological state between these two primary states. Following this paradigm, by applying the vagal break, we provide increased ventral vagal stabilization. When we release the break, we increase, in effect, the extent of sympathetic activation.
In response to cues which require increased mobilization, there are essentially two possibilities. There can be full activation of our sympathetic nervous system or the increase in the degree of sympathetic tone can be in a more graduated and modulated fashion. With full activation of the sympathetic nervous system, we lose the benefits of ventral vagal control. If we modulate our sympathetic nervous system response, we maintain an element of ventral vagal stabilization with the numerous biological benefits this provides. The manner in which we are able to modulate activation of our sympathetic nervous system is through application of the vagal break. The primary mechanism by which this occurs is through the effect on the sinoatrial node, the pacemaker of the heart. Rather than fully activating the sympathetic nervous system, by reducing the magnitude of the vagal break, we are able to increase heart rate and energy mobilization, while simultaneously maintaining an element of ventral vagal control. We can modulate the degree of the applied vagal break in order to, effectively, fine tune the amount of sympathetic and ventral vagal tone present to meet the requirements of the task at hand.
As it is now apparent that the vagal break is an important contributor to our health, wellbeing, and ability to pursue sustainable high performance, the next consideration becomes how best to improve our influence over the vagal break. This is accomplished through training our autonomic nervous system, particularly developing the ability to modulate our biological states and increase the flexibility and adaptability of our autonomic nervous system and its responses to stimuli. This is accomplished through the neural exercises described in previous articles in conjunction with enhancing our ability to recognize our biological states and shift our states through the previously described mind-based and body-based skills and strategies.
From a functional perspective, the vagal break provides us modulation of the amount of sympathetic activation that is present within our biological states. In this sense, the vagal break acts similarly to a dimmer switch on a light or fan. Without this, there are only two options along the continuum, namely no sympathetic activation or complete sympathetic activation with no ventral vagal stabilization. While there are certain scenarios in which complete sympathetic activation may well be appropriate and desirable, it is more often the case that mobilization while maintaining ventral vagal control is more beneficial to our current situation.
In addition, by modulating mobilization between ventral vagal and sympathetic states we are able to access what Michael Allison refers to as the blended state for optimal performance, which includes features of both sympathetic mobilization and ventral vagal stabilization. It is within this blended state that flow state exists. Therefore, in order to optimize our ability to access flow, it is important to develop the capacity to access this blended state. Utilization of the vagal break is a powerful strategy to accomplish this goal. For these reasons strengthening our vagal break has significant benefits towards optimizing our performance.
Developing the ability to influence the vagal break is an essential component to pursuing health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. This is an important contributor to the polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.
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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.