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The Vagal Brake & Co-Regulation / episode 6 Show Notes

Updated: Mar 22, 2023


The Vagus is the main highway or connection between the brain and the body

  • Vagus regulates all the Autonomic stuff we don’t have to think about: breathing, heart rate, digestion and so on

  • Freeway analogy - 4 lanes going north and 1 lane going south

  • 80% of the fibers are going to the brain and 20% going from the brain down

  • This is important because we can heal from the bottom up, from the body to the brain.

  • Breathing can change our State.

  • Movement, dancing, art, yoga can all change our State.

  • We can send signals to the brain that we’re safe from the bottom up

  • Also from the outside in with cues of safety


The Safe & Social System calms the heart

This is the “Vagal Brake,” basically keeping the Flight/Fight behaviors in control

  • Without the vagal brake, the heart would beat 20 to 30 beats per minute faster

  • Which would result in mobilization behavior

The strength of the Vagal Brake depends on co-regulating experiences of early childhood


Trauma survivors have a compromised vagal break

  • Small moments of distress become enormous challenges to their ability to utilize the brake

  • They may leave school or work when something goes wrong

  • They fight when they perceive threat


How much can we tolerate before going into defensive behaviors?


We are a social species. We regulate with each other.

  • Co-regulation is integral to mental and physical health

  • Keeps us at the top of the polyvagal ladder ideally

  • Before language, mammals used their voice to indicate if they were safe or dangerous to come close to

  • Still do. Dogs growl when they want to appear threatening and bark in a high pitch when there is potential danger

  • Safety leads to closeness and touch

  • Closeness may have been adaptive for survival

Non-traumatized individuals can move up and down the ladder

Self-regulation is built upon co-regulation

  • Those self-regulation skills we hope kids have first come from co-regulation at home and with peers

When it comes to successful co-regulation, we have to have at least one safe person that can tolerate their neuroception of going down the ladder



  • Two nervous systems (people) engage in back-and-forth communication

  • Cues of safety = connection/reciprocity

  • Cues of danger = disconnection/rupture


  • Nervous systems in different states

  • Comes with a powerful story

  • Is felt on both ends as a significant shift in State


  • Routine events that lead us away from Safety: Looking at a cell phone, looking away, internal distractions

  • Ruptures can easily turn into self-criticism or judgment of the other

  • Experienced as a withdrawal or confrontation

  • When ruptures happen, they need to be repaired. If not, negative expectations of future interactions result


All mammals do this

  • Face-to-face is often very helpful in reducing conflict, especially if the interactions occur in a safe environment

  • Defense turns off the face/heart connection

  • Faces become blank when challenged, in pain or scared

  • Heart rate increases

  • There is a direct connection from the heart, to the brain, to the face and neck muscles

The face is a polygraph

  • The state of your heart is shown on your face

  • Using the upper part of the face means the heart is calm and the person is Safe & Social

Upper part of the face communicates State

  • Muscles around the eye make “crinkles”

  • Listening, smiling

Inner ear muscles are tense and able to hear human voice very well

  • Shutting off response to low frequency sounds that trigger predator

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