A Systematic Review of a Polyvagal Perspective on Embodied Contemplative Practices as Promoters of Cardiorespiratory Coupling and Traumatic Stress Recovery for PTSD and OCD: Research Methodologies and State of the Art

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Nov 10;18(22):11778. doi: 10.3390/ijerph182211778.


Baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) has been proposed as a transdiagnostic biomarker of stress vulnerability across psychopathologies, and a reliable association between PTSD, OCD and lower resting RSA was found. Contemplative practices have been linked to the activation of the vagus as well as to an increased RSA that, according to the polyvagal theory, reflects the activation of the ventral vagal complex (VVC) and may promote PTSD and OCD recovery. PubMed and Scopus databases were selected to conduct a search following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) 2020 guidelines, and A MeaSurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews-2 (AMSTAR-2) was used to appraise the methodological quality for this systematic review. Six articles met the inclusion criteria (one cross-sectional study, one study with pre-post measurements, two cohort studies and two RCT studies). Mindfulness-related interventions promoted parasympathetic activity, an increased vagal tone and improvements in PTSD and OCD symptoms. According to the polyvagal theory, mindfulness-related and compassion-related meditations would be conceptualized as neural exercises expanding the capacity of the ventral vagal complex to regulate the present state and to promote resilience. Clinical and methodological issues are discussed.

Keywords: contemplative practices; data analysis methods; mindfulness; polyvagal theory; study designs; traumatic stress.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder*
  • Research Design
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic*
  • Vagus Nerve