You come home from work, pour yourself a drink and tune into Netflix. It’s 5pm. What’s wrong with that? Life is full, work is challenging, you are overstimulated, and you just need to relax.

Well, nothing is wrong with this – if it happens on occasion. But if this is your consistent coping mechanism, perhaps you are lacking resources to manage the stress of your life.

Many of us feel like victims to the overstimulation of the world. Our nervous systems are dysregulated. Our patience is fried. Our phones are buzzing at us and we are fed up. The news is horrific, the political state unstable, and we can’t deal with one more issue. So we flop. We zone out. We hide.

But what if there is another way to manage the overstimulation of the world? What if there is a choice and that choice is breath?

For years, we understood that our nervous systems had two pathways – the sympathetic and parasympathetic. But Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of Polyvagal Theory, offers us a different perspective.

The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is in the middle of our spinal cords and is responsible for action. It cues us to danger, triggers the release of adrenaline, and is responsible for the flight-or-flight response.

The parasympathetic branch, however, houses the Vagus nerve, and is comprised of two pathways: the ventral vagal pathway and the dorsal vagal pathway. The dorsal vagal is when we are in a protective state of collapse – perhaps frozen and numb. The ventral vagal is when we are connected with others, feeling capable of responding to the world, and safely engaged.

Deb Dana (2018) uses the metaphor of a house to explain this. The dorsal vagal system is the ‘basic utilities’ of a house. The body is working, but no one is home. The heat is turned down to the lowest setting – just enough to keep the pipes from freezing, but the house is empty. The sympathetic branch, on the other hand, is the home security system. The alarm system is on and the house is inhabited but the occupant (you) spends a lot of time scanning for danger, then returning to standby. Meanwhile, the ventral vagal system is a warm, comfortable home with all the utilities on, friends and family around.

What does all this have to do with Netflix? Well, if that is your constant coping mechanism, then perhaps you are choosing the path of shutdown, collapse and dissociation – in other words, the dorsal vagal pathway. You’re alive, but just barely. You’re functioning, but just barely.

But how to get out of this? Well, using your breath can be a powerful way to begin. In his article entitled Longer Exhalations Are An Easy way to Hack Your Vagas Nerve, Christopher Bergland explains how breathing with longer exhalations can calm the nervous system and increase energy and improve decision making. Yogis have known this for centuries, practicing a disciplined form of breathing called pranayama.

But before you decide that you just don’t have the time or energy to learn pranayama, I challenge you to try this: Inhale to a count of 4, exhale to a count of 8. This takes about twelve seconds. Do this ten times (that’s only 2 minutes, folks) and feel the difference in your body.

Did the lights turn on? Did the heat increase? Did a loved one stop by to bring you flowers?

In a way, yes. You may just have popped yourself out of the dorsal vagal pathway.

Welcome home.


Bergland, Christopher, 2019. Longer Exhalations Are An Easy way to Hack Your Vagas Nerve,

Dana, Deb, 2018. A Beginner’s guide to Polyvagal Theory