The Ventral Vagal System: Keeping you Connected

Oct 03, 2022

Your ventral vagal system is one of the most important systems in your body. It's responsible for keeping you connected, and it's something you should definitely learn more about. In this article, we'll discuss what the ventral vagal system is, what it does, and how you can activate it for better health and well-being. So read on to learn more!

What is the ventral vagal system?

So, first let's back up. Let's first talk about the autonomic nervous system. The ventral vagal system is part of the autonomic nervous system – sometimes abbreviated as the ANS – so it's important to understand what the autonomic nervous system is first. (The ventral vagal is actually part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in turn part of the autonomic nervous system – but we will get to that later. It can get confusing, I know, but stick with me – it's worth it. I promise!)

So, the autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating many of the body's vital functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration – and believe it or not, our ability to interpersonally connect.

We normally understand, on a gut level, that our heart beats without us thinking about it. Or that we breathe without a lot of attention to consciously making ourselves breathe. But interpersonal connection? Yep. Interpersonal connection – or our ability to be in interpersonal connection – is very much an autonomic function, just like breathing, just like heart rate.

This is a really important point. So I am going to repeat it: Our ability to be in interpersonal connection is very much something that modulates up and down, frequently beyond our control, just like heart rate, just like breath.

Some people have high blood pressure. Some people breathe at a very fast rate. Some people are not able to interpersonally connect very well. This is all due to the autonomic nervous system. It's part of their autopilot. Things beyond their control.

Autonomic means "automatic" – so you can think of it as the part of your nervous system that basically you can't really control – at least not in the way that we normally think of being able to control our nervous system. Systems that run on the autonomic nervous system, basically run on "autopilot" – and it frequently feels like they "happen to us" – rather than us "driving the bus."

So, people who aren't able to interpersonally connect – it's not always their fault. It might be their autonomic nervous system taking over.

Okay. So far so good. We have the autonomic nervous system, that basically is the "automatic" part of our nervous system. So, this autonomic nervous system (ANS) is in turn made up of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "fight or flight" response, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "rest and digest"/"safe and secure" response… or in extreme cases the "flop and drop" response.

(Side note: We will talk about the "flop and drop" response in another article. That is the dorsal vagal system. For purposes of this article, we will focus on the "safe and secure"/"rest and digest" response which is governed by the ventral vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system.)

What does the ventral vagal system do?

The ventral vagal system regulates our ability to be socially engaged with the world –, in short, our ability to connect with others. When the ventral vagal system is working optimally, we feel safe and secure. We feel like we can engage with others. We feel like we can take risks. We feel confident and self-assured.

This happens automatically! Autonomically, to be precise. It is something that is beyond our direct control.

Conversely, when the ventral vagal system is not working optimally, we may feel withdrawn. We may feel shy or anxious in social situations. We may find it difficult to take risks. We may feel unconfident or self-doubtful. This also happens automatically – as part of our autonomic nervous system response. It takes over, beyond what we can choose to do ourselves.

How does the ventral vagal system work?

The ventral vagal system is the part of our nervous system that regulates our ability to connect. We seek out friendliness, smiling faces, voices that sound soothing – and when all is well and good, we are able to feel safe and secure and ultimately, to feel connected with others. Our ventral vagal system is coming along, happily, and we feel at peace, connected and in flow.

However, when we are under threat, our autonomic nervous system will send a signal to the brain to activate the fight or flight response. That's when a different part of the "autonomic/automatic" nervous system comes into play – the sympathetic system kicks into gear and bumps us out of the ventral vagal state. We might feel jumpy, irritable, anxious, or ready to pick a fight. Our autopilot has left the sweet ventral vagal "connection" mode – and gone into the sympathetic nervous system "protection" mode.

What happens when the ventral vagal system is not working optimally?

There are a few things that can happen when the ventral vagal system is not working optimally:

We may struggle to be socially engaged. We may find it difficult to connect with others. We may feel shy or anxious in social situations.

We may have difficulty regulating our emotions. We may find ourselves feeling "on edge" or "irritable" more easily than usual. We may have trouble "letting go" of negative emotions like anger or sadness.

We may have trouble with decision-making. We may find it difficult to take risks. We may feel unconfident or self-doubtful.

Ultimately, when the ventral vagal system is not working optimally, we may feel disconnected – both from others and from ourselves. Not a very fun place to live or be.

What can we do to support the ventral vagal system?

There are a few things we can do to support the ventral vagal system:

  • Get enough sleep: Sleep is important for overall health, but it is especially important for the nervous system. When we are well-rested, our nervous system is able to function at its best.
  • Eat a healthy diet: A healthy diet provides the nutrients the body needs to function optimally.
  • Exercise: Exercise has a number of benefits, including reducing stress and improving cardiovascular health.
  • Practice meditation or other relaxation techniques: Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help to reduce stress and promote feelings of calm and well-being. In particular, elongating the "out" breath has been shown to be helpful in activating the ventral vagal system.
  • Seek professional help: If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, seek professional help. A therapist can help you to understand and work through these issues in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Learn more: If you are mental health professional, or somebody who just wants to learn more about the ventral vagal system, please consider enrolling in one of our trauma certificate programs. We cover the basics of polyvagal theory there, and how to use it to help support mental health and well-being.

Conclusion

The ventral vagal system is an important part of the nervous system – and it plays a vital role in our ability to connect with others. When the ventral vagal system is not working optimally, we may feel disconnected – both from others and from ourselves. However, there are a few things we can do to support the ventral vagal system, including getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and practicing meditation or other relaxation techniques.