What is the Polyvagal theory?
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
The vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system in the polyvagal theory:
Dr. Stephen Porges, a leading thinker in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, created the Polyvagal theory in 1994. The theory sheds new light on how the mind-body connection and autonomic nervous system shape our experiences, perception, and behavior.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates and supplies our internal organs with what they need. It controls processes like blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, digestion, and more. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) are the two branches of the ANS and help regulate your body and organs. The sympathetic system is like the gas pedal and the parasympathetic system is like the brake. The SNS (often called the Fight or Flight Nervous System) stimulates the body and organs and is excitatory while the PNS (sometimes called the Rest and Digest Nervous System) calms everything down. However, as you will see by the end of this post, things are not quite as simple as the classical model will have you believe!
The vagus nerve links all of the body parts and organs that are involved in the ANS together. The Tenth Cranial Nerve, vagus means “wandering” in Latin and the nerve goes from our brainstem all the way down to our gut innervating our heart, lungs, and digestive organs along the way. It sends information between the organs and the brain and regulates their degree of activity.
The vagus nerve is split into two parts: the ventral vagal and the dorsal vagal pathways. The ventral, meaning front, is the most recent of the two. Linked with other cranial nerves that govern facial muscles and vocalization muscles, the ventral vagal nerve forms a complex that Dr. Porges calls the Social Engagement System, and we have that to thank for our ability to connect and engage with others. Recall a time that you felt calm and connected with someone you are close to. Or a time that you felt empathy and joy. A well-functioning ventral vagal complex is responsible for that feeling! When it is online it allows us to pick up safety cues such as a melodic voice and friendly facial expressions.
Sympathetic activation turns on when we perceive danger after unconsciously scanning the environment for cues of safety and threats in a process called neuroception. It triggers the fight and flight responses and tells your body to get away from the threat. Sympathetic activation will often manifest as anxiety and hyperarousal. Chronically, too much sympathetic activation can cause conditions such as anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, and sound sensitivities. Living in sympathetic activation can make your view of the world radically different from people that feel safe. It is similar to how a depressed person views the world completely differently to a person that isn’t clinically depressed. Likewise, someone stuck in sympathetic activation views the world as a threat.
The polyvagal theory also identifies an older branch of the parasympathetic system called the dorsal vagal complex. Most vertebrates share this ancient system.
The dorsal vagal complex supports homeostasis when you are safe, but when the dorsal vagal complex is activated due to danger you go into a shutdown or withdrawal mode. This means that you may freeze, immobilize, or experience dissociation. You may be thinking “how is that helpful? I need to run or fight!” Well, fight and flight behaviors are seen as not useful when you face a threat so dangerous that you believe that you are unable to run away or defend yourself. So, your dorsal vagal decides to shut everything down as a last resort for your survival. Being immobilized has saved many animals since the beginning of time. For example, reptiles will freeze when they are under threat. Possums “play dead” when they perceive a threat. However, a better way to put this is that the possum’s nervous system perceived great danger and made the possum freeze for survival. A similar reaction is seen in people that have experienced a traumatic event.
So, why did I freeze instead of running or fighting back?
Just like the possum, your nervous system identified an extremely dangerous threat and shut everything down. This was done unconsciously! You did not ask to be frozen in place. Your dorsal vagal took the reins and shut you down for your survival.
In addition, you may find that you can’t go back to “normal” after the event. Maybe you find yourself dissociating afterwards. According to the polyvagal theory, this may be because your ANS has shifted following the trauma. It will take some work to heal into a place of social engagement and connection.
Does the polyvagal theory explain why I am stuck in sympathetic activation so often?
There are many factors that can contribute to being in sympathetic activation for long periods of time. To begin, stressors are everywhere in our modern way of life! We have work, traffic, children, societal issues, the onslaught of upsetting news stories, and more! And to top it all off we are in the middle of a pandemic! Adding on traumatic experiences, illness, and anything else is like icing on the stress cake! Added stressors and trauma keep us in sympathetic activation and has us constantly scanning our environment for potential threats. At Red Beard Bodywork we can support you on your journey to social engagement and connection following trauma.
So, what can I do to help myself get to social engagement and feel safe?
There are multiple polyvagal theory based interventions that we offer that can support you in feeling safe and creating connections. One that you can do at home is diaphragmatic breathing.
Yes, just breathing. Deep belly breathing to be precise. When we do deep breathing, we push on and activate the vagus nerve. And, this sends calming messages to our organs and brain.
Red Beard Bodywork has a team of therapists that specialize in applying interventions based on the polyvagal theory and are dedicated to support you in your healing journey
At Red Beard Bodywork we will create a safe holding space for you to explore techniques that enable you to reach homeostasis. We are dedicated to helping you calm your body and mind following toxic stress, illness, and trauma. Our somatic therapists will support you on your journey to connect with your body and nourish your nervous system. We are here to be a partner that supports and empowers you to build resilience. We strive to give you the tools to create a beautiful world for yourself following adversity. At Red Beard Bodywork you can learn to regulate your nervous system and connect with yourself and others. Our therapists and classes can help you reach social engagement and form lasting relationships.