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the Vagal Brake & Distress Tolerance

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

Hope you enjoy the read!

What the vagal brake is

Remember - the social engagement system is at the top of the Polyvagal ladder. It's the newest autonomic pathway, exclusive to mammals. As mammals developed the social engagement pathways, the sympathetic flight/fight and dorsal shutdown pathways became repurposed with the safety ventral pathways active at the same time. Without the ventral pathways active, the sympathetic flight/fight and dorsal shutdown systems still function, but for survival purposes. With the ventral pathways active at the same time, these survival pathways are now repurposed for prosocial behavior. But the ventral safety pathways need to be activated.

The vagal brake is the influence of the ventral safety pathways - the social engagement system - on the heart. If the ventral pathways are active, it will keep the heartbeat at a calmer pace. Without the ventral pathways active, heart rate increases about 20 beats per minute. If the safety state is inactive, then the vagal brake is off. If the safety state is active, then the vagal brake is on. The safety state is what keeps the defensive states in check.

How to Strengthen Your Vagal Brake

You'd strengthen your vagal brake like you would anything else - by exercising it. Meaning, utilizing your ventral vagal safety and social engagement system. If you have a goal to lift heavier weights, then you have to start by actually lifting weights. You won't be able to lift 200lbs before you lift 100. And you won't lift 100 before you lift 50. But you'll be able to reach your goal of 200lbs by starting with what you can and then building from there. You meet your goal of utilizing your safety pathways by starting with what you can. It may not be much, but it's better than nothing.

"Cool, Justin, but how?" Okay, okay.

Return to the Present Moment

If you're consciously existing in the present moment, that's probably a really good indicator that you're utilizing your ventral vagal pathways. And if that's true, then that means you're now exercising that system and building the strength of your vagal brake. It gets more complicated, but that's the basic idea.

Let's get a little more complicated...


“Pendulation” refers to the action of pendulating - going back and forth - from the stuck defensive state to the state of safety. In Polyvagal terms, it is going up and down the Polyvagal ladder. Pendulating requires an anchor - something that grounds the individual in the present moment. The act of pendulation can strengthen the vagal brake. It's like the Polyvagal way of lifting weights. It builds the autonomic nervous system's capacity for tolerating distress by building the strength of the safety pathways. “With each cycle - contraction, expansion, contraction, expansion - the person begins to experience an inner sensation of flow and a growing sense of allowance for relaxation” (Levine, Trauma and Memory).

The process of titration comes along with the process of pendulation. Titration is the act of feeling into the stuck defensive energy a little bit at a time. The key here is to do so a little at a time, not all at once. And to do so mindfully. Titration allows small bits of a defensive state to discharge, which allows for more capacity for feelings of safety. Titration can be a part of pendulation. As you feel into the defensive state, titration will naturally happen if you are doing so mindfully.

The Vagal Brake & Daily Life

When your vagal brake is sufficiently strengthened, a big benefit is being able to use the processes of pendulation and titration. But daily life also just becomes more manageable and less threatening.

Your daily life now has a calmer heartbeat and less potential to be triggered by benign or even negative things. People and events that are truly dangerous will still be treated as dangerous. From the safety state, you’re actually better at recognizing safety and danger on a very biological level. With a stronger vagal brake, that means more access to the safety state.

The work, school and relationship stresses of daily life are not as triggering. The parent that would otherwise yell at their child has more patience. The jerk at work is no longer as upsetting. Listening to friends and partners is more likely to come from empathy and understanding. These little to big daily assaults on our autonomic nervous system are not felt as assaults. They are manageable pieces of everyday life.


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Thanks for reading!

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