Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S
Recognizing the role of the mind-body connection helps mental health professionals teach calming skills that target the larger goal of helping their young clients develop a strong emotion neural system to create a wide window of tolerance for emotional distress. This blog article focuses on understanding the science of mind-body connection to teach clients how to use simple calming skills to manage their emotions.
Polyvagal Theory in a Nutshell
First, we’ll start with briefly (and I mean briefly here because the theory involves a complex system – us) examining the neuroscience of polyvagal theory to help understand the importance of the mind-body connection for the skills. What is Polyvagal theory in a nutshell? Stephen Porges (2011) proposes that the vagus nerve system is a bi-directional process of complex interactions within the body connecting the brainstem, heart, lungs, and digestive tract to regulate homeostasis. It’s his premise that our ability to regulate our emotions, engage in prosocial interactions with others, and form healthy attachments with others is greatly influenced by our internal physiological state regulated by the vagus system.
Why do we need homeostasis and what does it have to do with using calming skills?
Our internal state is influenced by external factors and our body is constantly in a state of working to achieved homeostasis. To use a medical example, when a virus gains access to our body it activates a variety of responses to fight off this virus and regain homeostasis, aka – we feel good and our internal bodily functions are working well because we don’t experience the symptoms of the cold anymore. It’s the same with our emotional state and emotions. Every day we experience varying degrees of stressors and we need to adjust throughout the day to tolerate the distressing situation and manage our emotions. This requires that we operate within our window of tolerance for emotional distress. When we’re in a state of homeostasis, we’re in a calm state, able to regulate our emotions, interact with others in a patient and respectful manner, our heart rate is operating at a good resting heart rate between 60-100 beats per minute, our breathing is within the normal range of 12-20 breaths per minute, and our digestive tract is functioning normally.
Every day we experience varying degrees of stressors and we need to adjust throughout the day to tolerate the distressing situation and manage our emotions.
Our autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The polyvagal theory states the PNS is composed of two vagal nerve systems that activate similar responses (immobilization) for different reasons – one activates social engagement (closeness and intimacy) and the other activates a freeze immobilization state in response to danger (Porges, 2011).
Here’s where understanding the brain-body connection helps mental health professionals identify calming strategies that can target the neural system to regain internal homeostasis resulting in emotion regulation. Children are in the process of developing their neural systems for emotion regulation. Their daily experiences provide opportunities to support the ability to develop effective emotion regulation circuitry. Our goal as mental health professionals is to help our young clients struggling with emotion regulation to learn strategies that will help them develop strong neural circuitry for emotion regulation. This will help them to widen their windows of tolerance to navigate the “ups and downs” of life and build resiliency. Their ability to use their parents for co-regulation is a key factor for children developing emotion regulation skills. It’s important to help parents learn calming skills as well so they can regulate their own emotions and help their children regulate their emotions – co-regulation.
It’s important to help parents learn calming skills as well so they can regulate their own emotions and help their children regulate their emotions – co-regulation.
Okay, I’m going to “nerd” out a little more and then tie it all together with some calming strategies. Hang in there. It’s important to understand the neurobiology aspect so that we can understand why we are recommending to our clients that they use these calming strategies – aka what do they need to achieve and how do the strategies help them achieve that goal? Make sense? Okay, here we go.
Let’s examine the concept of cardiac vagal tone. Cardiac vagal tone refers to “the functional relationship between the brainstem and the heart” (Porges, 2011, p. 102). It’s important for the internal regulation of the body’s ability to remain in calm, stable functions. Strengthening the cardiac vagal tone helps to create wider windows of tolerance for emotional distress because it helps to create more internal flexibility regarding the ways in which our vagus system responds to daily stressors throughout the day, every day. According to Porges (2011), “cardiac vagal tone is increased to support homeostatic functions, and cardiac vagal tone is decreased to increase cardiac output to support specific motor behaviors in response to environmental challenge” (p. 104). Think about the cardiac vagal tone as we think about our muscles – strengthening the cardiac vagal “muscle” provides the ability for more flexibility and agility with our heart rate, breathing, and regulating connecting internal systems to help us tolerate stressors throughout the day. Keep in mind that muscles also need to be stretched to improve flexibility. This is also true emotionally. Those emotionally stretching opportunities, such as those emotionally challenging times that cause us to grow if we allow them, generally speaking, can be helpful for developing resiliency depending upon our mindset about the “stretching” experience. This in turn helps us to maintain a wide window of tolerance for emotional distress because we can regulate our internal state to maintain regulated emotions and the ability to stay calm. Here’s how that will look throughout a typical day for a school-aged child, who we’ll call Sam (fictitious child):
Sam wakes up and had a poor night of sleep so he’s slow to wake up and running a little late. Mom comes into his room and tells him if he doesn’t get up then he’ll miss the bus and be late for school. Mom is irritated because she’s running late and doesn’t really have time to drive Sam to school if he misses the bus. Sam is aware of his mom’s irritation which adds to his stress. He experiences an increased heart rate and increased breathing rate as he rushes around his room and worries about missing the bus. His emotions are anxious. Cardiac vagal tone is decreased to allow for increased heart rate and breathing. Mom notices Sam is getting stressed out and she recognizes her irritation is only making him more stressed. She goes to Sam and tells him it’s okay and not to worry. He tells her that he didn’t sleep well and he’s stressed out about missing the bus. Mom uses a calming voice tone and reassuring facial expression to let Sam know that she understands and it will all be okay. Sam’s heart rate and breathing slow down in response to reassurance which results in calmer emotions. Sam gets to school and realizes he forgot his homework at home and his anxiety begins to increase which results in increased heart rate and breathing as he worries about getting a bad grade and his parents being mad at him. His teacher sees the worried look on his face and asks him if he’s okay. He hesitantly tells her that he forgot his homework at home. His teacher reassures him that he can turn in his homework tomorrow because he’s really good about getting his work done. He may also have time in class to complete his homework before the end of the day if he wants to do that. Sam feels better and his heart rate and breathing begin to relax.
Throughout the day we experience stressors that activate internal bodily responses which are regulated by our vagus system. A strong cardiac vagal tone allows for flexibility to tolerate those stressors and helps our heart, lungs, and digestion to regulate and return to homeostasis, i.e. a calm state.
Porges (2011) believes the quality of the cardiac vagal tone greatly influences social behavior and emotion regulation. Essentially our ability to regulate heart rate and breathing influences social behavior and our ability to regulate our emotions. He talks about the notion of a vagal brake which regulates heart rate and breathing and other related functions. Here’s how it works. Think about a bicycle and bicycle brakes. When we want to slow down the bike to make sure we are not going too fast, we apply the brakes to slow down the rotation of the tires propelling us forward. When the vagal brake is activated its purpose is to slow down the rate of heart rate and breathing in an effort to return to a homeostatic state. Using our bicycle analogy, when we release the brakes it allows the tire rotations to move faster and propel us forward. When the vagal brake is released, it allows our heart rate and breathing capacity to increase. For example, the vagal brake needs to be released if we want to run to flee danger.
How does all of this help us with calming skills?
Our ability to regulate breathing will then in turn regulate heart rate and work toward homeostasis within the body creating a “rest and repose” state, which allows for optimal functioning. So… when we are teaching skills for calming and coping, we need to understand the importance of breathing and mindfulness. Breathing will help to apply the vagal brake to bring your body into homeostasis if you’re anxious and overwhelmed, which means your heart rate is beating a little faster and your breathing may be shallower resulting in a tense internal and external state. Breathing will help you get into a mindful state and allow your body to relax. When your body is in a homeostatic state, then you’re able to regulate your emotions and engage in prosocial behaviors. This helps us to widen our window of tolerance to manage stressors and regulate our emotions.
When your body is in a homeostatic state, then you’re able to regulate your emotions and engage in prosocial behaviors. This helps us to widen our window of tolerance to manage stressors and regulate our emotions.
Now that you understand the basic neuroscience for the mind-body connection and regulating emotions, here are some quick and easy calming skills to regulate breathing and heart rate to bring your body into homeostasis. The first one is my new favorite and simple for calming your internal state. I actually LOVE it. Give it a try:
· Sit in a relaxed state ( or stand or lay down – whichever works for you). Put your right hand to your chest over your heart. Allow yourself to really settle into feeling your hand over your heart and connect to the beat and sensation of your heart. Allow yourself to connect to this experience being fully present in the moment. How does that feel?
Here’s another one a colleague friend of mine shared with me. It’s also amazing.
· Bring to mind a time when you were happy. Allow yourself to fully be present at the moment with that memory. Notice how your body feels and allow yourself to fully participate in the mindful state. What do you notice about your heart rate and body – relaxed, tense, disconnected?
In these mind-body exercises, you are connecting to an internal state of mindful presence at the moment which will bring your internal state into homeostasis- relaxed and calm from the inside out. The key is to allow yourself to be present at the moment and connect to the experience. This mindful presence at the moment allows us to settle our internal state. I like the hand over the heart skill because I can physically connect to my heart (well not completely physically since my hand is not physically on my actual heart) and I can feel my heart rate slowing down to a relaxed state which then calms my breathing and the rest is history for me… I’m super chill at that moment and enjoying the experience.
· Our internal state of homeostasis facilitates the ability to regulate our emotions and engage in positive social interactions.
· Cardiac vagal tone is a key factor to understand for achieving an internal state of homeostasis. Our cardiac vagal tone influences our body’s ability to be flexible to adjust to the stressor of the day and constantly works toward achieving a state of homeostasis – internal calm.
· Using mindful activities focused on achieving regulating our heart rate and breathing will help us to achieve an internal state of homeostasis to regulate our emotions and engage in positive social behaviors.
Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families? The Be 5 Framework is a neuroscience-informed framework integrating play therapy and expressive arts using intention and clinical decision-making. Download the free pdf here.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.