It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.
Have you ever noticed a disconnect between the nature of a conversation and the emotional energy leaking from it?
Imagine you’re having a conversation about socks. Oddly, you feel an undeniable sense of resentment coming from your conversational partner. This is about as harmless as conversation gets. Yet you still walk away knowing something isn’t right.
Most of us are prone to trusting the voices inside of our heads over our intuitions. We identify with our thoughts, plans, and intentions, but gut feelings feel slippery. Who are we to trust what can’t be put into words?
However, polyvagal theory frames gut feelings as our only reliable source of guidance. The theory meets at the intersection of psychology, neurobiology, and evolutionary theory. It provides insights that can help us create more satisfying relationships, with ourselves and other people.
Before we talk about how the polyvagal theory can help you influence and connect with others, I’ll give you a brief conceptual background. By the end of this post, you will understand how polyvagal theory can help you feel more comfortable and at peace, both when alone and with others.
Let’s relax together.
First conceived by Dr. Stephen Porges, polyvagal theory points to the feeling of being safe as fundamental to meaning in life. It describes a bidirectional relationship between the visceral organs and the brain. The heart, lungs, liver, and other organs constantly transmit signals to the nervous system about the degree of safety in the environment.
You’ve probably heard about the parasympathetic and sympathetic (“fight or flight”) system. Well, polyvagal theory goes further, describing a complex interchange between three autonomic circuits — the sympathetic, dorsal vagal, and ventral vagal (social engagement).
Polyvagal theory assumes that anxiety occurs simultaneously with an activated sympathetic circuit. This is cortisol city, where a zebra bolts from a lion. Or where we swerve toward the ditch, avoiding the tree and a broken neck.
On the other hand, social engagement occurs when the ventral vagal system, the most recently evolved autonomic circuit, is able to down-regulate the sympathetic circuit.
Why snakes don’t make promises late into the night
As you know, we share certain features of our physiology with animals. Our dorsal vagal circuit, responsible for digestion and excretion, is also found in vertebrates like snakes. But all the sophisticated things we do, from singing to conversation, depend on the ventral vagal circuit, which is unique to humans.
Polyvagal theory also emphasizes the connection between the regulation of heart and the muscles of the face and head. According to Porges, the muscles of the face and head are neurophysiologically linked to our heart regulation, making them important regulators of our physiological states.
The quality of our interactions depend on our physiological platform. Vibrant and cheerful interactions are only possible with a physiological platform that supports safety. No matter how sophisticated a conversationalist you become, you can’t hide your autonomic state. Words can help us lie, but our bodies cannot help but speak the truth.
“Nothing comes unannounced but many miss the announcement. So it’s very important to actually listen to your intuition rather than driving through it.” -Terence McKenna
Our bodies cannot help but advertise our inner life. If you consider an iceberg, conversations happen at the very top of the ice shelf, while there are several layers of pre-linguistic methods of communication lying beneath it. This is where autonomic signaling happens. This is why intuition is a reliable source of wisdom — it’s the synthesis of contextual cues and autonomic messaging.
The implication from polyvagal theory is that you have the power to regulate your disposition without agents like caffeine, drugs, or alcohol. You don’t have to rely on tools outside of you to feel differently. And you don’t need to write ideas for conversation on your hands to connect with people. Re-engineer your physical state, and you have the power to alter social dynamics.
If you want to connect with people, relax, create, and enjoy your life, the polyvagal theory is worth understanding. This article describes methods of generating a calmer state, that is, building a physiological platform that supports connection.
Add more words to the end of your sentences
According to The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory, slow exhales are the primary route for activating the ventral vagal (social engagement) circuit. This is because slow exhales increase the impact of the ventral vagal pathways on the heart. “During the exhalation phase of breathing,” Porges writes, “vagal motor fibers send an inhibitory signals (i.e. vagal brake) to the heart’s pace maker that slows the heart rate.”
If you’ve ever struggled to catch your breath in a tense situation, you’ve seen anxiety compound as you struggle to gain control over yourself. In high intensity moments, people usually tell us to calm down, to breathe deeply.
It’s not just about breathing deeply. It’s about slowing down the rate of your exhales. This is easier and better than just breathing more deeply. As Porges explains, you can slow the rate of your exhale by adding more words to the ends of your sentences before taking a breath. This is an accessible and reliable way to calm down by changing your physiology.
You can create a similar effect with a mantra or a chant. Prolonging your inhale until you’ve said a long string of words is another way to create a physical shift that promotes calmness. We achieve the same impact with singing and playing music.
I’ve always thought of playing music as transcendent because it allows us to express ourselves in ways words don’t allow. But polyvagal theory suggests that music promotes calmness by altering our physiology.
When we sing, we are talking while exhaling more slowly. We’re also modulating our tone. When we sing, we are increasing the influence of the vagal pathways on the heart’s pacemaker, which, as we’ve seen, has a calming impact.
Playing instruments also regulates our breathing. The process of aligning with a rhythm compels us to modulate our breathing along with it.
Said differently, music isn’t enjoyable simply because it helps us express ourselves. Rather, the pleasure of being expressive is a byproduct of a calmed autonomic state, which was made possible by slow and steady exhaling.
Meet in person
“Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.” -William Blake
Most human communication takes place on registers so subtle that it just can’t be replicated with digital tools. We communicate so much with the space between our words, the modulations in our tonality and the movements of our eye brows.
Remember that the striated muscles of the face and head are connected to the heart. Because they are associated with the muscles of the face and head, facial expression, listening, and melodic speaking are primary ways for our body to communicate our state to others and for us to learn from the signals of others.
It isn’t news to anyone that in-person interactions tend to be more satisfying than those that occur virtually. But polyvagal theory explains why.
Over millions of years, your body has evolved to use intonation, body language, and facial expression to infer the intentions of others.
When your interactions occur over the phone, text, or video, you lack many of the cues that your body uses to detect danger. Physiologically speaking, in the absence of cues that provide orientation, the social engagement system lacks the cues that would allow it down-regulate sympathetic activation.
For example, think about the difference between giving a presentation in person and over a video call. In person, we feel at ease within seconds. We infer how well we’re being understood in an instant. On a video call, it’s only clear that anyone is even hearing us when we check in and ask for a response. We lack the signals that would allow us to fully rest.
Talk to me like I’m your cat, dog, and infant son
When you talk to animals, and even to babies, you probably speak in a higher voice, with more variation in your intonations. Although you do it automatically, changing your pitch may actually be your body’s way of signaling that you mean no harm.
Of course, it might seem odd to speak to people in the same way you speak to a baby or a dog. But it may be as simple as speaking more melodically.
Vocal prosody, or variation in intonation, offers another opportunity to change your physiological state. Modulating tones send signals of safety to our nervous system.
Porges and others propose that variations in intonation recruit and modulate the neural regulation of the middle ear muscles. According to The Polyvagal Hypothesis (2010), the middle ear muscles calm our physiological state by increasing the vagal regulation on the heart (slowing it down). Vocal music has a similar impact, also triggering the neural regulation of the middle ear muscles, improving our ability to process the human voice.
Speak in a playful way. Monotones are harder to understand and can even send signals of danger to others. This is because monotones don’t prime the middle ear muscles to extract the human voice from background sounds. In this scenario, it’s harder to differentiate the voice from the low frequency sounds of the environment, which are known to produce feelings of doom.
Play more peek-a-boo
This is more than just a game of covering your eyes with your hands and scaring children. Polyvagal theory describes a series of “neural exercises” that optimize the regulation of your autonomic state.
Porges writes that transitory disruptions and repairs of physiological state during social interactions promote greater resilience. In other words, we become better communicators when we grow accustomed to toying with expectations.
We can bring the wisdom of peak-a-boo to all kinds of interactions. Irony is one example of a social exercise that consists of disruptions and repairs to physiological state.
Of course, this happens very quickly, but think about the first moment before a person’s irony registers. For that moment, you’re in a parallel universe. When you don’t realize the person is being ironic, your assumptions about them and whatever you’re talking about suddenly shift. This creates a disruption in your physiological state.
But when you realize the person is being rhetorically playful, you laugh, the conversation continues, and your physiological state is repaired. People who employ irony, subversive jokes, and the like are actually becoming more physiologically (and socially) resilient in the process.
If you’re feeling anxious, dear reader, you don’t have to wait for a better job, financial “freedom,” or a better story to tell yourself . Polyvagal theory suggests that our physiology determines the character of our interactions and feelings.
If you are feeling apathetic, Sing. If your friends are poor listeners, vary your intonations. Prime their brains to register your words. Your body is wise. In some ways we’re all 200,000 years old.