Vagal Brake Strength is a key trait of a resilient nervous system.

What is the Vagal Brake?

The vagal brake is the heart’s natural pacemaker. 

In the face of regulation and calm, the vagal brake engages and the heart beats between 60-80 bpm. In the face of dysregulation and stress, the vagal brake releases and the heart rate accelerates beyond 80 bpm. 

Without a vagal brake, the heart would beat so rapidly that the body would eventually grow exhausted and collapse. 

Vagal Brake Diagram

The Vagal Brake Metaphor: Bicycle Brakes

Dr. Stephen Porges, the scientist responsible for much of the research on the polyvagal system, compares the functioning of the vagal brake to a bicycle’s brakes.

When the vagal brake is strong, it can be used as a tool to regulate sensation and emotion.  In this example, the bike’s brakes engage smoothly and easily to regulate speed.

When the vagal brake is undeveloped or weakened, sensations arise unexpectedly and emotions appear quickly. In this example, the bike’s brakes have been disconnected. Without brakes, the bike’s speed is totally dependent on the surface. If the bike is on a hill, it rolls out of control, until the surface plateaus.

For most people, the vagal brake is an unrecognized part of their physiology, and an unaccessed tool in the emotional regulation toolkit. For most people, emotions and sensations swing wildly when stress and dysregulation strike.

Why is the Vagal Brake Important?

If your vagal brake is strong, you can use it as a resource to regulate in times of stress. You can choose how much energy to bring into your body and nervous system, and how much energy to expel. 

Strengthening the vagal brake adds resiliency to your daily rhythm. Use, or disuse, of the vagal brake directly impacts physical health and emotional well being. When a body is so accustomed to continuous influx of stress and stimulation (vagal brake is off), it feels unsafe and ill. A weak vagal brake is often associated with anxiety, chronic fatigue and other unexplained somatic symptoms. 

Breath: They Key To Vagal Strength

The vagal brake is also engaged and disengaged automatically in synch with the breath. On every inhale, the brake releases a bit – allowing energy into the system. On every exhale, the brake releases a bit – releasing energy from the system. Mindfully directing the breath can positively reshape your relationship with the vagal brake.

The following breathing tactic is key to vagal brake transformation. 

Exercising the Vagal Brake 

Imagine a time of minimal, manageable stress. 

Picture that moment, and allow yourself to feel the sensations related to stress in your physical form. Notice the sensations and the emotions.

Then, bring attention to your breath. Notice the depth and quality of the breath.

Next, mindfully extend the breath. Imagine that you are bringing energy into the body on each inhale, and removing energy from the body on each exhale. 

If you wish, and if it is helpful, imagine being on a bike at the top of a small hill. Your fingers are on the bike’s brakes. When you release the brake every so slightly, you allow the bike wheel to roll. You control the speed of the bike. When you press the brake slightly, you slow the bike down. You control the speed of the bike.

Imagine your nervous system is the bike wheel. Imagine the brakes are your vagal brake. With each breath, you bring energy into the nervous system, providing yourself with new, fresh energy. With each exhale, you take energy out of the nervous system, removing old, stale energy. 

By practising the vagal brake, you strengthen the connection between breath and stress. The vagal brake becomes a tool for regulation in times of need.

3 Benefits of Vagal Brake Strength

The vagal brake offers numerous benefits to every nervous system. The following 3 highlights provide examples that I see daily in my consultations.

1.Improved Capacity for Stress

When the vagal brake is strong, our relationship with other people changes. Everyday stressors, like those in the workplace, at school or at home, feel easier to manage. A delay on the way to work doesn’t disrupt the flow of your day; it’s simply a part of the day. A forgotten lunch doesn’t trigger a story about the person who did the forgetting; it’s simply a forgotten lunch. 

In general, a strong vagal brake makes for greater empathy and compassion for the self and for others. When stress arises, you’ll know how to engage the vagal brake to return to regulation. 

2. Greater Feelings of Safety 

When the vagal brake is strong, the heart beats at a steady and regulated pace. A predictable heart rate means daily events feel less threatening. When the heart rate increases unpredictably, daily events feel overwhelming.

A strong vagal brake allows you to sense cues of safety and danger more clearly; people and events are less likely to trigger emotional and physical responses. What might have triggered a ‘threat’ response in the past is tempered, and a sense of safety is quickly restored. 

3. Renewed Access to Empathy

For many people, the capacity for empathy has been dampened by frequent stress and overwhelm. When the vagal brake is strong, we can respond to one another’s needs as they arise. We are less reactive and defensive. We reunite as humans. We can extend one another greater compassion and kindness from a place of calm. It is from this place that great change can happen, both personally and globally.

Vagal Brake Strength Benefits

Strengthening the Vagal Brake: An Individual Journey

Strengthening the vagal brake is an individual journey. It certainly impacts our way of being with the world and in the world. A stronger vagal brake offers greater capacity for curiosity and understanding, and reduces the stress-based responses that prompt criticism and dismissiveness.

When the vagal brake is strong, we feel strong in our physiology. We feel strong emotionally. We feel prepared for connection.  After more than a year of unprecedented disconnection – we could all benefit from regulating resources like a strong vagal brake.

Researchers at the University of Indiana are developing a scale to gauge the strength of the vagal brake. Details to be released soon.