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What Happens in Vagus Stays in Vagus (Polyvagal Theory and Sleep)


Polyvagal theory is, indeed, something that would be useful to get acquainted with if you want to make substantial changes to your sleep quality.

So what is it?

This theory, in essence explains how our body picks up cues from the environment and reacts to them. For example, I am sure you have, at least once, found yourself entering a room full of people and suddenly felt uneasy. The nervous system constantly asses, based on tone of voice, body language and facial expressions, whether a situation we are in is either safe, or if it requires you to run, fight or “play dead”.

Now. You may not ACTUALLY roll over with your limbs in the air and pretend you are dead. But you might dissociate and go numb to your environment, making you effectively “not there”. And you might not fist fight the person in front of you, but you might be passive-aggressive with your tone of voice towards them. The responses that are unique to you and the situation can be deceptively nuanced.

Polyvagal theory consists of a three-part hierarchical system, meaning when one part is working, the other two are “offline”. And all these three parts involve a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve (“vagus” meaning “wandering”) that “wanders” from your brain throughout your entire body. It’s a funny and important little fella!

Your nervous system has a whole plethora of behaviours that correspond to each of the three parts, so let’s see what they are:

THE VENTRAL VAGAL SYSTEM – or the safety and social engagement system. This part is “online” when we feel loved, safe, able to express ourselves, and it allows our body to digest, fight off disease, have a healthy heart rate and SLEEP WELL.

THE SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM – or the fight or flight response. When this part is active, a person is not at ease and is constantly scanning their environment for cues of danger. The breath can be shallow and heart rate increased, often accompanied with poor digestion and bad quality sleep.

THE DORSAL VAGAL SYSTEM – or the freeze response. This is the “last resort” response of the body, when a collapse feels like the only safe response. People tend to dissociate, feel like fainting, feel trapped and have stomach problems.

What does this have to do with sleep?

The bad news is: as you might have imagined, it is difficult to sleep, let alone get quality sleep, when you are in anything other than the ventral vagal engagement. Good sleep does not come to a wound-up or collapsed body.

The good news is: the patterns you are experiencing are NOT permanent and they can be re-wired so that you spend more and more time in a safe and socially engaged state, which over time leads to an immensely improved quality of sleep.

So…what are the steps?

Step 1 - start paying more attention to how exactly your body responds in different situations. What is your posture, how is your breath pattern, can you look others in the eye, any sensations in the body, tight jaw...? Possibly even scheduling several daily “check-ins” and noting in a journal all the sensations you feel. Over time, you will not only be able to spot patterns, but get increasingly quicker at noting what exact state you are in.

Step 2 - actively moving towards ventral vagal engagement with “anchors” that can be specific to you (and which you can uncover through coaching or therapy) and a couple of cues that apply to almost everyone:

  • Slowing down your breath so that the exhalations become longer than the inhalations.

  • Listening to soothing music.

  • Placing yourself (literally or mentally) in situations in which you feel safe and connected. For this you will need to determine the who, what, where and when of your particular feeling of safety.

These steps are, on the one hand, simple and easy. And on the other, require consistent work. If you would like to engage in learning better self-regulation in order to gain better quality of life and sleep, you can contact your therapist for this specific work or work with a sleep coach like myself.

If this interests you, feel free to book a free 30-min discovery call to see if sleep coaching is for you:

May you all rest well and live your best life.


About the author

Maša Nobilo, Sleep Coach

From first-hand insomniac to certified Embodied Facilitator with training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, the Feldenkrais Method and Embodied Yoga Principles, Maša is well-equipped to support you on journey to restful sleep.
Learn more below.

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