Sunday, February 3, 2013

Emotion Regulation: The Heart of the Matter

Emotion Regulation -- The Heart of the Matter

February is, among other things, heart health month, and many early education professional spend at least the week of Valentine’s day focusing on aspect of hearts. On aspect of the heart that you may be less familiar with is vagal tone and the vagus nerve.

There are many reasons and assumptions we make regarding children’s behaviors and emotional expression. Have you ever had that kid in class who just cried about everything? Or who never seemed to get upset? What about adults in your lives? Or yourself? Are you the emotional roller coaster? Or are you the rock steady person?

If we really step back and think about the psychology and physiology behind emotion regulation, we can start to understand the mechanisms that determine individual differences in the expression and regulation of emotion. One lesser kown aspect of this process involves the heart….and the nerve that regulates many aspects of heart function.

Vagal tone is determined by the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve (10th) in the brainstem. Its impulses regulate various aspects of heart function including heart rate. In the seminal article written in 1994, Porges, Dooussard-Roosevelt, & Maiti explored the link between vagal tone and emotion regulation. “Vagal tone is a physiological index of parasympathetic nervous system influence on the heart that has predicted a number of emotional behaviors and styles in infants, children, and adults” (Movius & Allen, 2005).

The vagus is a complicated system that is categorized as part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve controls the S-A node which is the “primary pacemaker of the heart.” When the S-A node is stimulated by the vagal system, heart rate is slowed. When the vagal system is not stimulating the S-A node, heart rate speeds up. The vagus nerve mediates heart-rate changes. This is especially apparent during fight-or-flight situations when there are rapid changes to heart rate due to emotional states.

In other words, vagal control/tone of heart rate is key to helping people with approach-withdrawal situations. When we attend to social cues and determine psychologically whether to approach or withdraw from (fight or flight) situations. Studies have shown that people who have “higher vagal tone” are better able to regulate their emotions when under stress and are less distracted and pay more attention to new inputs. Research has also shown that people with higher vagal tone appear to express more facial expressions of emotion and have a greater range and instances of emotional expressiveness as well as experience less negative emotionality.  People with lower vagal tone are less able to regulate their responsiveness to stress and often present as anxious and defensive when under stress. Low vagal tone people have fewer coping mechanisms and take longer to calm down after an emotional episode.

 The next time you are wondering why a child is unable to control his/her emotions or seems to always “over react,” consider that the child might be “hard-wired” via the parasympathetic nervous system to react or under-regulate. Knowing that this is a possibility may help early care and education professional better react and relate to these types of children. When we understand that there may be an underlying physiological reason for certain behaviors (reactivity, anxiety, defensiveness, difficulty calming down, low attention spans, etc.), we can better respond to those children and strengthen our relationships with them.


Movius, H. L. & Allen, J. J. B. (2005). Cardiac Vagal Tone, defensiveness, and motivational style. Biological Psychology 68, 147-162. Available online at

Porges, S. W., Doussard-Rooevelt, J. A., & Maiti, A. K. (1994). Vagal Tone and the Physiological Regulation of Emotion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 167 – 188. 

Dr. Ellaine B. Miller, PhD, is the Managing Director for the Family Child Care Partnerships program at Auburn University.

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