Skip to main content

Vagus Nerve Regulation and Complex Trauma with Arielle Schwartz, PhD

Come join us as Dr. Arielle Schwartz talks about the Vagus Nerve and PTSD.


By allowing yourself to drop your own gravitational attention outside of the head, but also to allow your heart and your belly to be part of the learning body. So that as an embodied presence, you can really tune into the three dimensionality of yourself in space, that your breath can help you slow down, and maybe just really sit back and relax and take in this exchange that we have for this next hour. Often, I say that when we want to invite the body into our therapeutic experience, as well as our learning experience, it requires a certain amount of slowing down.

Complex PTSD
Repeated, prolonged exposure to traumatic events

What is complex PTSD?

Here we’re really speaking about the impact of repeated prolonged exposure to traumatic events.

Individuals who maybe had thought, well, I couldn’t have PTSD because there isn’t some specific event, there wasn’t some big, I wasn’t in a war, I didn’t have a big car accident or a big event, but I feel keyed up. I feel anxious, and I feel that I have a hard time bringing myself out into the world.

Why is this? And when we start to see, when we look at complex PTSD, is that it’s an accumulatory disorder, in the sense that there might be specific events such as child abuse, but there don’t have to be events. And complex PTSD doesn’t always originate in childhood. Sometimes it happens later, such as social stress, which might happen in school, but it could also happen in work environments, or in relationship environments that are abusive. We’re experiencing community and political violence, refugee situations that are unfortunately so common in our current world, and experiences of prolonged captivity.

The Vagus Nerve

The upper vagal extensions go into the muscles around the eyes, hence that soft smile, the throat, the mouth, the larynx and pharynx, the heart and lungs. That’s our social nervous system that helps us to orient to safety.

The lower vagal pathways go below the diaphragm, into the organs, the stomach intestines. They help us access restoration and relaxation when we feel safe, right?

However, when we’re not safe, we’re actually dropping into the dorsal vagal, without the ventral vagal connected, and so we go into an immobilization, in which that lower dorsal vagal response can go kind of haywire. It can really wreak havoc in the whole body.

The Vagus Nerve and Healing PTSD

The vagus nerve and the healing of PTSD, I’m just going to say one piece here, which is that there is no fixed state of balance.

We’re constantly, life is going to pull us and hand us stresses and pull us in one direction or another. It’s just, that’s the nature of being human.

So what we want to know is the tools that we can return to again and again. It’s not enough to brush our teeth once a week and think that our teeth are going to remain clean all week. Same thing with the vagus nerve. We want to think about it as a tooth brushing practice that we can repeat and come back to daily, sometimes multiple times a day to reset. Sometimes multiple times an hour, right? And in order for our vagus nerve exercises to work, we have to be safe. If we’re asking a client to try and relax in an environment where they are currently being threatened, well, it’s just not going to hold. It’s not realistic. And in fact, the fear response is needed to help them actually restore safety.

Breathing for Vagus Nerve Regulation

Natural vagus nerve, humming, right, getting through that vagus nerve that’s going through the vocal chords, produces a calming effect. Listening therapy, Stephen Porges has a safe and sound protocol through the integrated listening therapy. That half smile. Sometimes inhaling, holding your breath a little bit of pressure against a closed airway, has been known to stimulate the vagus nerve. The diving reflex, cold water on the face, and yoga.