Polyvagal Theory Explained
Polyvagal theory is a relatively new neuroscience theory that explains how our nervous system affects our emotions and behavior.
This theory has been found to be helpful in understanding conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even autism. It can also help explain why some people have trouble sleeping.
If you’re interested in learning about the latest neuroscience theory, then you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll explain some new research about what polyvagal theory is, how it can help you sleep better, and give you some tips on how to use it to improve your sleep – and your whole life.
Table of Contents
What is the polyvagal theory in simple terms?
The Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges explains how the mammalian autonomic nervous system evolved to keep us safe and alive. Polyvagal theory suggests that our autonomic nervous system is composed of three branches, with each branch being responsible for a different set of physiological and behavioral responses. The theory proposes that the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in our body, plays a central role in regulating these responses.
According to the theory,
- The first branch of the autonomic nervous system, the ventral vagal complex, is responsible for promoting social engagement behaviors and regulating our emotional responses.
- The second branch, the sympathetic nervous system, is responsible for our fight-or-flight response to stress.
- The third branch, the dorsal vagal complex, is responsible for our freeze response and is associated with feelings of dissociation and shutdown.
The theory suggests that our autonomic nervous system responds to cues from our environment and adjusts our physiological and behavioral responses accordingly.
Dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve, has been linked to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, and PTSD.
In simple terms, the Polyvagal Theory explains how our sense of safety, danger or life threat can impact our behavior by focusing on what is happening in the body and the nervous system. It suggests new approaches to healing that focus on strengthening the body’s system for regulating arousal.
How does the Polyvagal Theory affect our understanding of emotions?
The Polyvagal Theory gives us a better understanding of how our emotions are regulated and how they are affected by our environment. It explains
- how a kind face or soothing tone of voice can significantly change the way we feel, and
- how being ignored or dismissed can lead to extreme reactions.
- how connecting with others can help us to move out of fearful or disorganized emotional states.
By looking at the three neural circuits that support different types of behavior – social engagement, fight or flight, and shutting down – we can gain insight into how our bodies and minds respond to external stimuli.
The Polyvagal Theory guides us to recognize how the ventral and dorsal branches of the vagus nerve play a role in regulating our heart rate, facial expressions, and breath – all of which have a direct effect on our emotions.
In sum, the Polyvagal Theory helps us to comprehend how our physiological and psychological states interact in order to affect our emotions.
How does the Polyvagal Theory affect our understanding of trauma?
The Polyvagal Theory affects our understanding of trauma by
- showing us how trauma interrupts our ability to regulate our nervous system responses and feel safe in relationships.
- why we become wired for threat when we have a trauma history, with our patterns of connection being replaced with patterns for protection.
The Polyvagal Theory helps us to understand why attuning with another person can shift us out of disorganized and fearful states, and provides new approaches to healing that focus on strengthening the body’s system for regulating arousal.
The polyvagal ladder is a concept which explains how our Autonomic Nervous System responds to different cues in our environment as well as the sensations and feelings in our bodies. It outlines three pathways, each with its own predictable patterns of response that follow a specific order and hierarchy.
- This hierarchy starts with the oldest response of immobilization (Dorsal Vagus),
- followed by mobilization (Sympathetic Nervous System)
- and finally the newest response of social engagement and connection (Ventral Vagus).
By understanding this ladder, we can gain a better insight into how to regulate our stress response and improve our overall quality of life.
Vagus nerve and sleep
The vagus nerve plays an important role in regulating the body’s sleep-wake cycle. It helps to regulate our heart rate and breathing, both of which are important for getting some Zzz’s. The parasympathetic system, or rest-and-digest system, is activated when we are ready to fall sleep and the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve helps to activate the “shutdown” of the body that happens when we are in a state of rest. The ventral branch of the vagus nerve helps to regulate body functioning above the diaphragm, which is important for relaxation and stress relief. This relaxation helps to induce a deep sleep. The emotional connection during social engagement that the vagus nerve stimulates can also help promote peaceful sleep. By calming the sympathetic nervous system and allowing us to release emotional tension, the vagus nerve helps to improve sleep quantity and quality.
Seems funny but you even can improve your parasympathic system by sleeping on your side.
How to use the Polyvagal Theory in therapy?
Step 1: Identify your states
Understanding your nervous system states can be an important step in developing resilience. With the help of Polyvagal Theory, we can learn to identify our states and develop ways to regulate our emotions and reactions to stress.
Think of one word to describe each of the three states: ventral vagal (rest and digest), fight or flight, and freeze. Examples could be joyful for ventral vagal; stressed for fight or flight; and hopeless for freeze.
By identifying your state you can begin to make a profound difference in your nervous system state and develop resilience.
Step 2: Identify your triggers and glimmers
When using the Polyvagal Theory in therapy, one of the first steps is to identify triggers and glimmers for each of the three nervous system states. Once you have identified the words that represent each of the three states, you can then identify the triggers for each state.
- A trigger for the fight or flight state could be a fight with your neigbour, an argument with your boss. For the freeze state, the triggers may be more extreme, like the death of a loved one.
- Glimmers are the things that bring you to the optimal nervous system state. These can be simple acts such as petting a cat or a bigger event like going on a travel. It is important to identify glimmers that work for you, as it can help regulate your emotions and responses to stress.
By understanding your triggers and glimmers and cultivating a sense of control over your nervous system state, you can begin to develop resilience and know how to effectively respond to life’s challenges.
Step 3: Develop a strategy for working with each state
Once you have identified the triggers and glimmers, begin creating a plan for working with each state of the Polyvagal Theory. This plan should include specific ways to reduce the triggers in your life and to increase the glimmers.
For example, you may want to create a list of deep pressure calming activities that you can do when feeling triggered and overwhelmed, or make a plan to take a travel or staycation in order to increase your glimmers. Do not forget that the triggers and glimmers are all yours, unique to you. You decide, you are in control.
By following these steps, you can develop a strategy for working with each state of the Polyvagal Theory and create a plan to help you access the rest and digest state.
Step 4: Practice making small steps
Use your newfound knowledge to start making small changes in the way you respond to situations. For example,
- if you recognize that you are in your fight or flight state, you can take a deep breath and consciously remind yourself that you are safe.
- You can also focus on the “glimmers” or things that bring you to the optimal state.
Remember that these small steps are part of a larger, overall healing process. By being mindful and conscious of your reactions, you can start to regulate your nervous system and create positive, lasting changes in your life.
Usage of cues
To implement the Polyvagal Theory in therapy, body language cues can be used to identify which of the three states a person is in. It is important to identify the cues that may be associated with the three states of the Polyvagal Theory so that the therapist can recognize if a person is in fight-or-flight, immobilization, or social engagement.
Imagery can be used to help the client visualize themselves in a new environment with different sensations. The therapist can encourage the client to imagine themselves being in a safe and peaceful place, such as a beach, a forest, or any other place where they feel safe.
Through the use of touch cues, therapists can help clients to recognize and respond to social cues in a way that is beneficial to their overall wellbeing.
Utilize toys and activities
Toys and activities can be used in therapy to implement the Polyvagal Theory and help build safety and connection. The steps for using toys and activities to implement the Polyvagal Theory in therapy are as follows:
- Remove Cues of Danger: The first step is to remove any potential cues of danger, such as loud and low-frequency sounds, that could trigger the nervous system to think a predator might be nearby.
- Increase Cues of Safety: Use the space to ensure safety by empowering the client to navigate the space in the office to promote choice. Soft vocal music can also help to calm the nervous system.
- Introduce Toys and Activities: Introduce toys or activities that will help to further build safety and connection between the therapist and the client. For example, the therapist can hold a stuffed animal while talking with the client.
- Re-Enlist the Social Engagement System: Once the client has a feeling of safety, spontaneous engagement behaviors occur, like a change in tone of voice even facial expressions which means the client’s social engagement system is stimulated.
Using toys and activities to implement the Polyvagal Theory in therapy can be an effective way to build safety and connection with the client. Ultimately, it can help to transform how we work with patients who have experienced trauma and promote healing.
The power of body language
Body language plays a powerful role in the Polyvagal Theory, which is a theory that explains how one’s nervous system function affects emotional regulation and social engagement. Our body language and non-verbal cues are interpreted by our bodies on an unconscious level and can be used to help us move towards an optimal nervous system state. Through observing body language and facial expressions, our bodies can pick up on subtle cues in our environment and respond accordingly.
John is a client who has experienced trauma, making it difficult for him to navigate social cues. In order to use the Polyvagal Theory in therapy, the therapist works with John to identify triggers for his fight/flight state and his freeze state. Through discussion, the therapist helps John to identify the word “stressed”.
The therapist then introduces touch cues as a way to help John recognize when he is in each state. For example, when John begins to feel overwhelmed and stressed (in the fight or flight state), the therapist gives him a gentle touch on the shoulder or hand to help bring him back to the present moment or uses a soothing and reassuring tone of voice to help him move to a place of feeling safe and secure.
Finally, the therapist introduces glimmers into John’s life in order to help him move to a more optimal nervous system state.
How does the Polyvagal Theory explain trauma?
The Polyvagal Theory explains trauma by highlighting the disruption it causes to our autonomic nervous system responses and ability to regulate our emotions. We become wired for the perception of danger and constantly scan our environment for cues of potential threats. This can lead to a state of hyper-vigilance, where the body is in a constant state of fight or flight, and we might also feel physically and emotionally collapsed or even dissociated from our body.
The theory also explains how memories from traumatic experiences can remain in our bodies and keep our defence systems engaged, even when the threat is no longer present. This can prevent us from shifting to a relaxed and positive state.
How does the Polyvagal Theory describe the autonomic nervous system?
The Polyvagal Theory describes the autonomic nervous system as being influenced by the central nervous system, sensitive to afferent influences, and characterized by an adaptive reactivity dependent on the evolutionary history of neural circuits. It specifically focuses on the transition between reptiles and mammals, which resulted in changes to the vagal pathways that regulate the heart. This shift created a “face-heart connection” that allowed social interactions to regulate visceral states.
The two other parts of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, which help to manage life-threatening situations. The sympathetic system activates a fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic system triggers a shutdown or freeze-or-faint reaction. The social engagement system is a third type of response that combines both of these, and operates out of unique nerve influence. It requires a sense of safety in order to be utilized, and helps us to navigate relationships and cope with difficult situations.
EMDR Therapy for parasympatic activation
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a type of therapy that is often used to treat trauma and other mental health issues. During an EMDR session, the therapist guides the patient through a series of eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation while they focus on a traumatic memory or other disturbing experience. The goal of EMDR is to help the patient reprocess the memory in a way that reduces the emotional distress associated with it. While there is no direct relationship between polyvagal theory and EMDR, the 8 phase EMDR therapy also may work by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. However, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms by which EMDR works.
What is a social engagement system?
The social engagement system is a collection of motor pathways that control muscles of the face, head, heart, and lungs. It is a critical survival mechanism that evolved as mammals developed communication through facial expressions and non-verbal bodily cues. These signals let other animals know whether or not we are safe to approach.
The social engagement system is primarily coordinated by the vagus nerve, one of the five cranial nerves. In order to switch from defensive strategies to social engagement strategies, the nervous system must assess risk and if the environment is perceived as safe, inhibit the more primitive limbic structures that control fight, flight, or freeze behaviors. Ultimately, social connectedness is a core biological imperative for humans, since our survival is dependent on trusted others.
What is neuroception and how does it work?
Neuroception is a neural process that enables humans and other mammals to discern between safe and dangerous contexts without conscious thought. It works by detecting features in the environment, such as voices, faces, and hand movements, and sending this information up to areas of the temporal cortex. This information is then processed in the amygdala and the periaqueductal gray, which are part of the limbic system that is responsible for our emotional responses. Depending on how these structures interpret the environment, either a dorsal vagal, sympathetic, or ventral vagal pathway will be triggered.
If the environment is deemed safe, the defensive limbic structures are inhibited, allowing for social engagement and relaxed physiological states to occur. However, if the environment is misperceived as dangerous, even when it is in fact safe, then the nervous system will activate fight, flight, or freeze behaviors instead of social engagement behaviors.
Polyvagal theory suggests that instead of focusing on the cognitive interpretation of the experience (the story), it is more important to understand the nervous system’s response (the state). This is because our thoughts are largely determined by the activity of the nervous system, which is why therapists utilizing this theory aim to start by understanding the autonomic response.
What is the role of the vagus nerve in the Polyvagal Theory?
The Polyvagal Theory states that the vagus nerve is a primary component of the autonomic nervous system and is associated with two distinct branches of the parasympathetic nervous system: a “ventral vagal system” and a “dorsal vagal system”. The ventral vagal system is involved in social engagement by aiding in calming and relaxation, while the dorsal vagal system is associated with immobilization behaviors, such as “rest and digest” or defensive immobilization or “shutdown”. Polyvagal Theory suggests that the vagus nerve plays an important role in regulating emotions, connection to others, and fear response.
How can the Polyvagal Theory be used in trauma work and therapy?
The Polyvagal Theory can be used in trauma work and therapy by helping individuals understand how trauma can manifest in their body and how it can affect their nervous system.
For example, if an individual has a trauma history, they may struggle to regulate their autonomic responses, such as fight, flight, or freeze, and feel unsafe in their body and in their relationships. In addition, they may become hypervigilant and primed to respond to threats, or they may feel constantly in a state of shutdown.
Through polyvagal theory, counsellors can help individuals build a relationship with their body and nervous system by providing a safe space for them to explore their own experiences. This can include validating their feelings and experiences and addressing their trauma in an understanding way.
Ultimately, the Polyvagal Theory can be used to help trauma survivors learn to re-establish safety and connection.
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