Updated: Dec 22, 2020
What the vagal brake is
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 ventral pathways active at the same time. Without the ventral pathways active, the sympathetic and dorsal systems still function for defensive reasons. With the ventral pathways active at the same time, these defensive postures are now repurposed for pro-social behavior.
The vagal brake is the influence of 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.
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. Accessing it. Moving up and down your polyvagal ladder.
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 life 100 before you life 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.
I teach and guide the participants of Building Safety Anchors on exactly this concept. I take the general idea of building your vagal brake and help people discover what "anchors" them in the present moment. Things like sensory experiences, cognitive skills, their environment and even their memories. All of these and a lot more can be used to anchor someone into the present moment. This means they are utilizing their safety pathways.
But let's get a little more complicated...
Pendulation is a concept I first heard about through Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing. It 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.
Another concept from Peter Levine - titration. This is the act of feeling into the stuck defensive energy a little bit at a time.
This is not easy. Feeling the pain of a defensive state is challenging to say the least. It takes a lot of readiness to do so, in my opinion. It takes a firm anchoring in your ventral vagal system. I think the first step of making change is to actually strengthen the ventral vagal system, not to dive into the painful stuff from your past.
Once you're firmly anchored in the safe and social state, then you can begin to look inward at what might be there. You could. It's your call.
If you're anchored and then make that choice, I'd recommend you do so in small doses. Don't expect to have the huge, trembling release of energy at first. You may have to get acquainted with tolerable doses of that energy first. Where it lives, how it feels, what your body does and wants to do in reaction to the energy.
Why the Vagal Brake is Important
When your vagal brake is sufficiently strengthened, a big benefit is being able to use the processes of pendulation and titration. But there are also many more immediate, daily changes that you might see. Here are a couple.
Daily life becomes more manageable
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.
There is less experienced threat
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 neurocepted as dangerous. Responses to previous "threats" will be more tempered and attached to empathy for the other person.
Our World Needs Stronger Vagal Brakes
We need our "leaders" at all levels to come from empathy. Our elected leaders, our religious leaders, our familial and our teachers too. But they aren't (blanket statement, not intended to be all-inclusive). The people we trust on and rely in the most are not coming from a place of safety. They are reactive and defensive, just like you and me. Because they're human.
But we need to individually each increase the strengths of our own vagal brakes. We obviously need to approach each other with love and compassion, not judgment and shame. With a stronger vagal brake, there will be more curiosity and understanding and less evaluation and dismissiveness.
Because if the vagal brake is active, that means the safety and social engagement system is active. That means the biology is prepared for connection. Our world needs a lot of that.