Harnessing the Power of Polyvagal Anchors: A Guide to Emotional Regulation and Wellbeing

I am often asked ‘How do I better manage my emotional reactions to difficult
situations?’ Whilst there are many techniques to support our state management (or emotional state) there is often the challenge of having to practice those techniques so that they are easy to switch on or to utilise in the heat of the moment. However, thinking about turning on those techniques in the heat of the moment can be a challenge in and of itself!

What are the options?
Learning how to use different techniques that stay in our internal system and emerge as and when we need them. Why do we do this? To build state management techniques that will support us, preventing some of our reactions and ultimately leading to less friction and/or conflict. We are getting ahead of our emotional reactions to a situation, by daily practicing techniques that reduce the threat in our internal system.

What is this magic?
Enter the concept of polyvagal anchors. Let’s explore how they can be used to improve emotional regulation and enhance overall wellbeing.

Understanding Polyvagal Theory
To understand how polyvagal anchors work, we must first understand polyvagal theory. According to polyvagal theory, the vagus nerve, which is a cranial nerve, plays a critical role in regulating the autonomic nervous system. The vagus nerve has two branches: the dorsal vagal branch, which is associated with immobilisation and dissociation and the ventral vagal branch, which is associated with social engagement and connection.

Polyvagal anchors work by activating the ventral vagal branch of the vagus nerve, which helps to regulate emotional responses and promote feelings of safety and connection.

When an individual experiences a stressful or triggering event, their autonomic nervous system may become dysregulated, leading to a fight, flight, or freeze response. Polyvagal anchors can help to activate the ventral vagal branch, which can counteract the stress response and promote a sense of safety and security.

The individual concerned starts to see what would have been a stressful situation in a different way – they can start to view the situation with eustress, which is a much more resourced view and more resourced emotional state.

What are Polyvagal Anchors?
Polyvagal Anchors are tools or techniques that are used to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digest functions in the body. These anchors help to regulate the autonomic nervous system. When our nervous system is regulated – we embrace feelings safety, security and calmness.

A recent article from The New Scientist highlights the growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of polyvagal anchors. Studies have shown that individuals who regularly practice polyvagal techniques report a significant decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression. In one study, 75% of participants who used breathing exercises as a polyvagal anchor reported an improvement in their overall emotional wellbeing.

Additionally, research indicates that activating the ventral vagal branch through polyvagal anchors can improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is a key indicator of autonomic nervous system health. Higher HRV is associated with better stress resilience and emotional regulation.

We know it works – so how do we create Polyvagal Anchors?
This is where the daily practice creeps in and where creating polyvagal anchors can be challenging. We get put off by the daily practice piece. But in order for polyvagal anchors to influence and impact your nervous system, you will need consistent practice.

But, if we stop for a moment – there are daily routines which are part of an embedded routine that we don’t even think about. That is what we need this practice to become. Just like cleaning your teeth every day – you practice a technique or develop a ritual to build your polyvagal anchor muscle.

Here is where you can have some fun.
Find a practice, ritual or routine that works for you. This is where you can experiment and do a mini study on you. Explore which ones are incorporated into your daily life easily, or which ones do you want to do as they take you out of your daily life! (I am often delighted to get away from a screen to go and do some Pilates!).

The fact to remember, as you build daily/weekly routines, is that you will create strong and powerful polyvagal anchors, that will not only positively impact your nervous system, but they will also reduce your overall stress and instead build higher levels of eustress and increase your overall emotional wellbeing. That must be something worth giving a go?

Here are five examples of how you can create your own polyvagal anchors with
practice that is life focused:

  1. Breathing Techniques: Deep breathing exercises can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote a sense of calmness. One technique is to take a deep breath in for four counts, hold for four counts, and then exhale for six counts. This actually works! Give it a go.
  2. Somatic Exercises: Somatic exercises can help to release tension and promote relaxation in the body. Examples of somatic exercises include yoga, tai chi, pilates and gentle stretching. I am a big fan of pilates am an looking for some Tai Chi classes locally. What connects with you?
  3. Mindfulness Practices: This is an interesting area and I hesitate as I include it – but it is true – mindfulness practices, such as meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction, can help you regulate your emotions and promote a sense of safety and security. However, there is so much noise and nonsense in this space. I would encourage you to find a way of being present, being in the moment – whatever that looks like for you. I used to love walking my dogs as they are brilliant examples of being present. I was completely present with them and our environment. Find a practice that works for you and it doesn’t have to be sitting in front of a candle if that is not you!
  4. Connection with Others: This is particularly true with our new ways of working. Remote and hybrid can suddenly lessen the amount of human connection we have. Connection with others is a powerful tool for regulating emotions and promoting a sense of safety. This can include spending time with loved ones, connecting with friends, or engaging in a support group.
  5. Self-Soothing Activities: Engaging in self-soothing activities, such as taking a warm bath, listening to calming music, or even taking some time out and drinking a cup of tea (as long as you like tea!) can help to promote relaxation and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. What is key here is do something that creates a pause in your daily action, action, action. If you struggle with this, put a time limit on it. I will do X for 15 minutes. That way the anxiety part in you that wants you to get on, will be quiet – for 15 minutes!

Norepinephrine to impact your nervous system.
Here are four examples of how you can create polyvagal anchors using Norepinephrine. Norepinephine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a crucial role in the body’s “fight or flight” response, affecting heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness. Norepinephrine boosts your brainpower and recharges your batteries.

📌Get Hearts Pumping: Engage in brisk walks, jogging, or dancing to increase norepinephrine levels, providing a surge of energy and mental clarity.

📌Morning Rituals: Kickstart your day with invigorating routines like cold showers or a hearty breakfast to stimulate norepinephrine for alertness.

📌Tiny Wins: Set small, achievable goals to release norepinephrine, promoting motivation and energy to accomplish tasks. Visualization here really helps!

📌Adventure Time: Try something new. Step out of your comfort zone and instead of saying this which will create a negative reaction in your nervous system, reframe with these words: ‘Safely uncomfortable I am stepping into X”.

And finally polyvagal anchors can be used in the following areas:

  • Rest. What does rest look like for you? (Collapsing in front of the telly may not give you rest!)
  • Sleep. Quality sleep routine in place?
  • Nutrition. How strong is your nutrition? Do you need to set some goals?
  • Mindset. How is your mindset aligned with a growth mindset? A fixed mindset keeps your internal system in threat. Why? Because every day brings change.
  • Emotional Expression. Developing awareness of your emotions. Notice as emotions arises and remember – emotions are in motion. Watch the emotion and let it stay in motion and continue to move past you.
  • Reflective Practice. After a meeting or event – capture your thoughts/feelings/ beliefs/values). What are you noticing?
  • Gratitude. Do you have a daily gratitude practice? This really impacts your heart brain.

As you can see, there are many different ways in which you can create polyvagal anchors – and I have given a few. As you build strength within your nervous system, you will reduce anxiety and reduce your cortisol levels. What you found stressful in the past will become less stressful. What irritated you in the past, will becomes less irritating. You will become more ‘spacious’ in your responses because you are less tightly wound up.

In conclusion, polyvagal anchors can be powerful tools for promoting emotional regulation and overall wellbeing. By creating and utilising polyvagal anchors, you will learn how to regulate your emotions and promote a sense of safety and security. With consistent practice and effort, anyone can effectively use polyvagal anchors in their daily lives. The combination of scientific evidence and practical application underscores the value of these techniques in enhancing mental health and resilience. What’s stopping you – make a start now…

Real Case Study using Polyvagal Anchors.
Here is an illustration of how polyvagal anchors can be used.

Sarah, (name changed) is a mid-aged professional who was experiencing frequent anxiety and panic attacks. She decided to see a coach, even though her friends kept telling her she needed counselling. After seeing her Sandown Business School Neuro-Coach (@sandownbusinessschool we have many neuro-coaches that are currently working with clients) for a couple of sessions, she decided to incorporate polyvagal anchors into her daily routine to manage her symptoms better. She started with deep breathing exercises every morning and before bedtime. Over the following two weeks, she noticed a significant reduction in her anxiety levels, which surprised her, but also spurred her on.

Sarah, encouraged by the difference in this first practice, decided to integrate a somatic exercise and started a local yoga class. She went weekly and set this in her diary as a priority for her wellbeing.

By combining these practices, the deep breathing twice a day and yoga once a week, she started to see that she was able to self-regulate much more effectively.

She continued with her coaching for a further 6 months focusing on self-regulation and co-regulation techniques, and at the end of their work together, she hadn’t had any further panic attacks, she had reduced her anxiety and was sleeping more deeply (evidenced by her Fitbit), her blood pressure had come down (evidenced by her doctor) and she felt much more in control of what she did and how she did it.


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