The Multivagal System:
A New Paradigm of Safety
By Michael Shea, PhD
Introduction and Anatomy
The Multivagal System is a new paradigm. It integrates the Vagus nerve above the respiratory diaphragm with the Vagus nerve below the respiratory diaphragm. The Vagus nerve is a critically important physiological and metabolically part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in the middle of the human body. It is a superhighway of information with four lanes going up and down the middle of the body. It is 80% sensory and 20% motor.
Structurally the Vagus nerve arises from two nuclei on both the right side and left side of the brainstem. It is also called the tenth cranial nerve (X) since it is the tenth pair of a total of twelve pairs of cranial nerves. Not only does it have a right and left side but each side also has two sites of origination thus making it four nerves in one, two emerging on the left, and two on the right.
Safety is the most fundamental principle of the Multivagal Safety System. The term Social Safety is what Stephan Porges calls neuroception. This is the way in which the brain interprets social signals from other people as safe or not, especially their faces, posture and movements. Neuroception is determining people safety. Are people safe to be in relationship with? At the neurological level, neuroception is largely unconscious but it can trigger significant physiological changes, especially in the heart. Neuroception is determined by the Social Engagement System (SES) which involves facial expressions, the eyes, and hearing. Facial cues constantly give information to the brain via the Vagus.
The heart represents emotional safety, a deep safety, integrating three levels: at a metabolic level (molecular exchange of 02), at the physiological level of the SES (behavior), and at a spiritual level (loving-kindness and compassion). Thus, emotional safety is spiritual safety. Spiritual safety is a vital component of our health and well-being. The basic phenomenological experience of the heart is one of vulnerability. This simply means that everyone has a soft, flexible, tender spot in the front of their heart derived from embryonic development. The heart is designed to be able to expand, especially the anterior portion that connects with the sternum. It is part of the natural and normal biology of the heart. The heart needs to be soft and flexible in front, and this produces sensations of vulnerability while it is firmer posteriorly. Vulnerability is not weakness or the lack of boundaries but rather it is associated with openness, confidence and authenticity when felt consciously and non-judgmentally.
The heart also has a very exquisite pleasure capacity stemming from positive social engagement with other people, which raises vagal tone (feel-good experiences that stabilize and lower heart rate). This heart-pleasure system is further integrated with one’s sexuality including arousal and orgasm. The Vagus nerve transports pleasure information from the pelvis (via the hypogastric nerves) up through the abdominal aortic ANS plexi to the heart and brain. The transport of pleasure and relief via specific hormones such as oxytocin and neurotransmitters is a very important function of the Vagus nerve and an important experience of the heart. Joy and happiness are associated with this pleasure system as are health and well-being.
The abdomen via the Vagus nerve is about metabolic safety. This specifically relates to the proper care and feeding of the gut microbiome, the detoxification of the large intestine, and a complex interaction with the cardiovascular, enteric, endocrine, and immune systems located in and around the lining of the gut. One very important function of the Vagus nerve is to constantly monitor the gut microbiome, liver, spleen, and endothelium of the viscera for inflammation and sends this information to the heart and brain and back down for an anti-inflammatory response in the liver and spleen. However, once inflammation is in place metabolically starting in the gut, the feeling of inner safety erodes. That internal “something is not quite right” feeling is often constant.
The same inflammatory processes being monitored by the Vagus include monitoring for excess glucose in the bloodstream associated with inflammation. Consequently, we can become conscious of the garden of metabolic safety in our belly by eating real food. Metabolic safety is a living part of our biology since the gut microbiome is now linked to our psychological well-being. Metabolic safety is a deep form of psychological safety. We can feel the earth and all its activity in our belly, including the weeds and delicious fruits. From the earth our body is built and maintained and thus the viscera is the center of the universe inside the human body.
Then we arrive at the Pelvic Organs. I call this the three Rs: reproduction, recreation, and relief. Moral safety happens in an environment that allows for urination, defecation, and orgasm. Although the Vagus nerve does not directly connect to the organs in the pelvis in the human, it is indirectly connected via the pudendal nerve, the sacral outflow of the PNS, and the sacral plexus as listed at the very bottom of the infographic. These three sacral nerve plexi contribute to sexual arousal and orgasm, urination including defecation, and flatulence. But where does the Vagus nerve interface with the pelvis?
One of the most popular vagal maneuvers is a broad category of breathing techniques such as Eliot Cohen’s coherent breathing, six seconds of inhalation, and six seconds of exhalation. Box breathing is also a vagal maneuver when the inhale is for X amount of seconds, the breath is held for X amount of seconds after inhaling, exhaling for X amount of seconds, and holding the breath at the end of exhalation for X amount of seconds. Belly breathing consists of filling the lower lobes of the lungs first and feeling the umbilicus expand out during the inhalation and fall back naturally during the exhalation. Another type of vagal maneuver with belly breathing is to inhale into the abdomen for X amount of seconds, purse the lips and exhale for X amount of seconds. These breathing techniques can be practiced for 5 to 20 minutes and in general stretch the Vagus nerve especially its connections in the respiratory diaphragm. Vagal maneuvers are designed to create inner safety and improve vagal tone and heart rate variability.
About the Author:
Michael J. Shea, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in somatic psychology from the Union Institute and has taught at the Upledger Institute, the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, and the International University for Professional Studies. He is a founding board member of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy Association of North America and the International Affiliation of Biodynamic Trainings. He is the author of several books, including Somatic Psychology, and lives in Juno Beach, Florida. https://www.sheaheart.com/