Vibe Check: What Your Body is Trying to Tell You and Why You Should Listen

It’s time for a vibe check: take a moment to notice your body. Are there tense parts? Relaxed parts? Do you feel connected or disengaged? Are you picking up on any vibes?

We talk about them a lot: Good Vibes Only, No Bad Vibes… these expressions have been around for quite some time and are making the rounds again. So what is a vibe, exactly? If we trace the word back to its origins– vibrare– it means to set into tremulous motion. But we also accept that “vibes” are emotional signals that we pick up on, without any direct evidence. So then doesn’t that mean that a vibe is an emotional signal which sets us into motion?

According to our bodies, that is exactly what a vibe is and we do, in fact, sense them all of the time thanks to a specialized organ called the vagus nerve, which is connected to most of our major organs including the heart, lungs, brain, and gastrointestinal system. Based on the types of “vibes” our vagal system detects, our body responds accordingly which results in feelings of safety and connection, fight or flight, or shut down.

The vagus nerve has three parts: the ventral vagal complex, sympathetic nervous system, and dorsal vagal complex. The ventral vagal complex is located above our diaphragm, or midsection, and regulates our social engagement. When we feel safe or connected, we are spending time in our ventral vagal system. If we receive a sign of danger and become activated, we may enter a fight or flight state. These cues– or detected vibes– happen in milliseconds and allow for changes that help us to feel regulated. For example, if we are in our favorite store and a stranger gets too close to us, we may receive a danger signal from our ventral vagal system which tells us to back away and feel safe again, all before a conscious thought ever enters our brain. If we realize that the stranger is actually a friend we bump into, we may even feel engaged in excitement or play.

When we pick up on bad vibes, we enter a fight or flight state, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This system is also connected to the ventral branch of our vagus nerve and is responsible for helping us stay safe and exit situations we may perceive as threatening. Once there is no longer a threat, we are able to re-engage with our ventral vagal system and feelings of safety and connection.

But what if we are stuck? What happens when we are stuck in a situation where we cannot fight or flee? Our dorsal vagal complex is activated when we either cannot exit our sympathetic nervous system or the threat is too intense at which point we enter a shutdown state. This system is connected to everything below our diaphragm, including our gastrointestinal system. Shut down states can look like freezing up, dissociating, numbness, depression, or feeling stuck or trapped. This is often why people who experience trauma report feelings of being unable to move, even though they may have been physiologically able to; their dorsal vagal system was in full protection mode. Whereas interactions in our ventral vagal complex occur in milliseconds, these interactions occur in seconds and can take several minutes, sometimes longer, to exit these states.

So how does all of this occur? If we think about our vibe check, or really how often we pick up on vibes: the vibes of a person, a place, an animal, or an experience, it’s pretty clear that we experience vibes almost all the time. Through a process called neuroception, our body is using our nervous system to scan around us, all the time for signs of danger. If we receive safe signs or good vibes, we feel safe and connected and stay present in our ventral vagal complex. If we receive danger signs or bad vibes, we enter fight or flight and eventually, shut down, if unable to get to safety.

How does our body know what is safe? We begin learning which vibes and signals are safe and which are potentially dangerous from early on in our development. These lessons can be impacted by relationships, attachment, culture, trauma, and general life experiences which explains why what may feel like a good vibe to one person, may feel like a bad vibe to someone else. It also explains why we sometimes encounter people who have “bad vibes” even though we have no explanation for why we feel that way; our vagal system is telling us that something about that person feels dangerous. It could be because they remind us of someone else, because of their tone of voice or facial expression, a traumatic experience(s) we had, we are uncomfortable in the overall environment, or simply because they are someone we don’t know yet.

The important thing to remember is that our thinking mind is the last thing to get on board; by the time we have the thought, our vagal system has already been sending us vibes.

So what can you do? Make time for a vibe check: take time to sit with your body, and notice the signals. Befriend your vagus nerve. Utilize sensory-based coping skills such as a cold compress, humming or singing, or deep breathing practices. Vibes happen in your body before they happen in your mind, so it’s important to connect and soothe your body too! And if you find that your vibes are out of whack, connect with a therapist or check out Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deb Dana.

Andi Yates, MA, MFT