+1 (559) 379-5579

Welcome back to our corner of the coaching world! Today, we’re continuing our discussion around vagal tone by looking at three types of vagal circuits. In our last article, The Power of High Vagal Tone in Ethical Coaching Practices, we discussed how vagal tone is a measure of how the heart can respond to stressors.

We explored how good (or high) vagal tone means that when you’ve had a stressor, your heart can quickly return to a normal state. Conversely, low vagal tone means that if you’ve been stressed by something, it’s going to take longer for your heart to return to a normal state.

We also looked at how low vagal tone is often associated with poor emotional control and greater sensitivity to stress.

Vagal Tone and Coaching: What’s the Connection?

So how does vagal tone relate to coaching? As coaches, it’s important to understand that vagal tone is going to help our bodies operate in the parasympathetic nervous system — that’s the Blue Zone that we love to talk about at The Academies. And the parasympathetic nervous system has to do with the rest-and-digest/tend-and-befriend state, where we feel calmer and more comfortable. We’re able to respond to challenges in front of us without getting nervous, anxious, or wigged out about things.

Let’s Talk Polyvagal Theory

There is a theory called the Polyvagal Theory that was developed by psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Stephen Porges. This theory describes how our physical body involuntarily responds to different stimuli. The stimuli can be external, such as a car coming at us that we didn’t expect.

Another example can be experienced in work environments, where we often encounter external stimuli that can make us feel wary or defensive. These stimuli can come in various forms, causing us to think, “Uh-oh, I need to be cautious about this,” because we perceive it as a potential threat. Porges points out that this is an unconscious, involuntary response. Our body is responding this way, but we may not even be aware that the body is doing this.

What are the Three Vagal Circuits?

This brings us to the topic of today’s article. Dependent upon the body’s involuntary response to external stimuli, Porges suggests we have three different vagal circuits that can kick into action as a result of what the body is unconsciously perceiving.

These three vagal circuits are called the:

  • Social Engagement Circuit
  • Mobilization Circuit
  • Immobilization Circuit

Vagal Circuit #1: The Social Engagement Vagal Circuit

The Social Engagement Circuit is the place where we would love to be most of the day. This is the place where we have a lower heart rate and our heart rate variability is high. It’s a good thing to have high heart rate variability, as it helps us control our emotions.

When we’re in the Social Engagement Vagal Circuit, we laugh and smile naturally. The crinkles around our eyes really show up when we have that natural-looking smile. In this state, we can also listen more actively and subtly. We can also listen better because the muscles in and around our ears are relaxed and can vibrate more, allowing us to better tune in to things like intonation, pace, and breathing. We’re able to maintain good eye contact as well in this process.

As you can see, there are a lot of good things happening when we’re in the social engagement space. This is where you want to be as a coach, because this is where you’re going to be able to have the ability to connect on a deeper level with your clients, listen more carefully, and think more clearly about asking the powerful questions you’ve been trained to ask — and your body is going to help you do those things.

Vagal Circuit #2: The Mobilization Vagal Circuit

The second circuit that Porges talks about is called the Mobilization Circuit. Think “fight-or-flight” when you envision the Mobilization Circuit. Once again, the body is subconsciously detecting risk or danger, which is apparently an older vagal circuit in our system that has evolved over time. When the Mobilization Circuit is engaged, we have two options: We can either have an adaptive response to it or we can have a maladaptive response to it. Let’s explore each of these responses a bit further.

Adaptive is associated with responding in an emotionally intelligent manner, perhaps taking a pause first before deciding how to respond, whereas maladaptive is associated with reacting in a manner that heightens and extends the fight-flight behavior.

Adaptive Response

An adaptive response would be something that helps us shift back very quickly into the Social Engagement Circuit. Oftentimes, there’s more curiosity and mindful awareness, along with greater emotional agility, so that we can calm the body, regulate the heart and respiration, and return to the Social Engagement Circuit.

Maladaptive Response

A maladaptive response has to do with perpetuating the stress response. Rather than being able to shift ourselves out of the stress response back into a calm state, we perpetuate it by staying there longer. We may start ruminating on whatever it was that we saw, heard, or experienced, we’re agitated, we get anxious, and we stay in this negative feedback loop. We might start telling stories to ourselves about how we were either inadequate, we were wronged, or we were caught by surprise and feel that the person involved in this situation shouldn’t have done this to us. There are a lot of internal stories that could be going on in this state.

Along with the perpetual looping, there are other interesting things happening physiologically when we’re in a maladaptive state. Rather than laughing and smiling like we do when we’re in the Social Engagement Circuit, our bodies have the opposite response in a maladaptive state. Our bodies tense up and our shoulders and neck become tighter. Even our eardrums get tight and tense, and when our eardrums are tighter, we’re unable to listen as carefully.

Chances are good that you’ve been in situations before where you were caught by surprise in the middle of a conversation with someone. Maybe you heard something that startled you or caught you off guard, and it was such a shock to your system that you stopped concentrating on what the person was saying. Or maybe you completely misinterpreted what the person was saying. Part of this is just a physiological response because your eardrum’s vibrations are not as malleable or as pliable when you’re in the mobilization/maladaptive state.

So, as coaches, it is very important for us to know the differences between the Social Engagement Vagal Circuit and the Mobilization Vagal Circuit. Finally, there is a third vagal circuit to be aware of.

Vagal Circuit #3: The Immobilization Vagal Circuit

The Immobilization Vagal Circuit is not likely one that we’ll see often in coaching. As the name suggests, this is the circuit that actually shuts everything down when we’re hit with something that causes a major threat response. When the immobilization vagal circuit is engaged, people may experience fainting or complete dissociation.

An example of this would be if you’re in an airplane, and you’re afraid that the plane might be going down, or if there’s some severe threat coming at you. In response, your body just shuts down by fainting as a way to protect itself and not have to deal with what is happening.

How Awareness of Our Vagal Circuits Can Lead to Better Client Outcomes

As coaches, it’s important for us to recognize that the faster we can return to the Social Engagement Circuit, even when we know we might have gone into the mobilization state, we can better coach our clients and move toward more successful outcomes. This is because the Social Engagement state is where we’re the most present, listen the best, ask powerful questions, and have the best ability to be present and connect with the client.

If you notice that you have slipped into the Mobilization circuit and are not in the Social Engagement circuit when you’re in a coaching conversation (or in any conversation where you want to be present), simply take a breath. Taking a breath will help to reoxygenate the rest of your organs, relax your muscles, and give you that mindful pause that we talk about. Doing so will get you out of the Red Zone of maladaptive mobilization and back into the Blue Zone of social engagement. Enjoy practicing getting back into social engagement so that you can be all that your clients need you to be and all that you want to be in the world as a coach and a beautiful human being.

Visit our Neuroscience and ICF Core Competency #1 article to deepen your knowledge and understanding of this topic, and keep up with our monthly Neuroscience and the ICF Core Competencies series. Tune in to our next segment where we’ll explore the neuroscience supporting the coaching mindset and its connection to the ICF Core Competency #2.

While you’re here, please take a few minutes to explore our ICF-approved coaching programs! We offer courses for coaches starting or continuing their coaching journey, and we proudly accept ACSTH and CCE transfer hours in our Level 1 and Level 2 Programs. We’d love to connect with you to explore your questions and curiosities about our neuroscience-based approach to coach training., so schedule a call with a fellow human today!