Polyvagal exercises: A path to reducing stress and chronic pain

Polyvagal theory, introduced by Dr. Stephen Porges, revolutionises our understanding of the autonomic nervous system and its impact on our emotional and physical health. This theory explains how our nervous system responds to stress and how we can use specific exercises to promote relaxation and emotional resilience. Polyvagal exercises are designed to engage the vagus nerve, which plays a critical role in regulating our body's response to stress and fostering a sense of safety and connection.


What is polyvagal theory?

Polyvagal theory posits that the autonomic nervous system has three distinct branches: the ventral vagal complex (VVC), the sympathetic nervous system, and the dorsal vagal complex (DVC). The VVC is associated with social engagement and calm states, the sympathetic nervous system is related to fight-or-flight responses, and the DVC is connected to immobilization and shutdown responses. Polyvagal exercises aim to stimulate the vagus nerve to promote the VVC's calming effects, reduce stress, and improve emotional regulation.

Benefits of polyvagal exercises

Stress reduction

Polyvagal exercises can significantly reduce stress by activating the VVC, which fosters a sense of safety and relaxation. When you engage in these exercises, you can lower cortisol levels, reduce anxiety, and alleviate symptoms associated with chronic stress, such as tension headaches and muscle stiffness. This activation helps counteract the sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response, promoting a state of calm and well-being.

Stress, a ubiquitous part of modern life, often leads to chronic health issues like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and mental health disorders. Polyvagal exercises counteract these effects by calming the nervous system, helping you feel more grounded and less reactive to stressors. Over time, regular practice can lead to profound changes in how you handle stress, making it easier to remain composed and resilient in challenging situations.

Chronic pain management

Chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, and back pain, often involve dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. By stimulating the vagus nerve, polyvagal exercises can help manage pain by enhancing the body's relaxation response. Improved vagal tone can lead to better pain perception, muscle relaxation, and enhanced circulation, providing relief from persistent pain.

Polyvagal exercises help shift the nervous system from a state of heightened sensitivity to one of calm and healing. By improving blood flow and reducing muscle tension, these exercises can alleviate the intensity and frequency of pain episodes. Over time, individuals practising polyvagal exercises may notice a reduction in their reliance on pain medications and an overall improvement in their quality of life.

Emotional challenges

Emotional challenges, including anxiety and depression, can be mitigated through polyvagal exercises. These exercises enhance emotional resilience by promoting a sense of safety and stability, balancing emotional states, and encouraging mindfulness. Improved vagal tone supports better emotional regulation, allowing individuals to respond to stressors with greater ease and flexibility.

Anxiety and depression often stem from a dysregulated nervous system, where the body remains in a chronic state of fight-or-flight or shutdown. Polyvagal exercises help recalibrate the nervous system, fostering a state of calm and engagement. By regularly practising these exercises, individuals can develop a more balanced emotional landscape, experiencing fewer episodes of intense anxiety or depressive lows. This enhanced emotional stability can lead to improved relationships, better work performance, and a more fulfilling life.

Common polyvagal exercises

Deep, slow breathing:

Slow, rhythmic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety. Practice deep breathing by inhaling slowly for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for a count of six. This type of breathing can be done anywhere, anytime, making it a versatile tool for immediate stress relief.


Gargling with water stimulates the vagus nerve due to the throat muscles' involvement. This simple exercise can help activate the relaxation response. Incorporate this into your daily routine, perhaps in the morning or evening, to set a calm tone for the day or prepare for restful sleep.

Humming or chanting:

Vocalisation through humming or chanting can stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting a sense of calm and well-being. Find a quiet place and hum a tune or chant a mantra, allowing the vibrations to soothe your nervous system. This can be particularly effective before stressful events or as part of a daily meditation practice.

Cold exposure:

Brief exposure to cold, such as splashing cold water on your face, can activate the vagus nerve and improve vagal tone. This quick exercise can be incorporated into your morning routine or used as a refreshing reset during the day. The shock of cold stimulates the vagus nerve, helping shift your body from a stressed state to a more relaxed one.

Social engagement:

Positive social interactions stimulate the VVC, enhancing feelings of safety and connection. Engage in conversations, maintain eye contact, and practice active listening to foster a sense of belonging and relaxation. Regularly connecting with friends, family, or support groups can create a buffer against stress and promote emotional health.

How a therapist can help

While you can practice polyvagal exercises on your own, working with a trained therapist can enhance their effectiveness. Therapists can provide personalized guidance, and tailoring exercises to meet your specific needs and address particular areas of concern. They offer support and encouragement, crucial for maintaining consistency and motivation in your practice. Therapists can also track your progress, make adjustments as needed, and introduce advanced techniques to deepen your practice and achieve better results.

A therapist trained in polyvagal theory can help you understand your body's unique responses to stress and develop a customised plan that integrates these exercises into your daily routine. They can also help you navigate any emotional or physical barriers that may arise during your practice, ensuring that you achieve the maximum benefit from these techniques.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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St. Neots PE19 & Bedford MK40
Written by Donna West, MBACP (Accred)ACTO (Snr) Psychotherapist/Clinical supervisor
St. Neots PE19 & Bedford MK40

I have worked with an array of clients whom have accessed counselling for varying reasons that they feel are inhibiting them from living an authentic life. My role within the therapeutic relationship is to work alongside an individual to facilitate self-exploration and consider alternative routes that may lay before them.

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