An introduction to polyvagal theory

I integrate the polyvagal approach into therapy sessions. Polyvagal theory is a useful way of connecting to yourself better. It helps in building safety and connection.

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What is polyvagal theory?

Polyvagal work looks at three states: safe and social, fight/flight and shutdown. It is a way of tuning in to the changes in your body, thoughts when you feel safe or want to escape or shut down. Polyvagal work helps you notice what happens to your body when you feel like running away or withdrawing from others.

These states are natural physical responses that we all have, as do other animals. This is why anxiety can feel as though you are not in control. Your body acts to help you survive automatically. It really is not all ‘in your head’. Your body will always try to pick the best course of action to help you survive with the resources you have.

The more you tune into your body and your automatic responses, the more you can explore what feels safe and feel more in control. 

When we incorporate polyvagal theory in sessions, you are invited to map your polyvagal pathways as you move up and down the states (safe and social, fight/flight, shutdown). For example, what does it feel like moving from panic to safe? What would you call that panic state and what are the stages in between as you move to safety? What does each stage feel like?

We might do a personal profile map where you describe how you and the world feels when you are in the three states - safe and social, fight/flight or shutdown. Creating different maps helps you know your triggers and responses and learn more about yourself. 

You might try breathing and mindfulness to regulate these states. Working together, you can discover ways you can feel anchored in safety.

Polyvagal theory has been proposed by Stephen Porges following decades of research. The guiding principles of polyvagal theory are:

  • Neuroception
  • The hierarchy of the autonomic nervous system - both evolutionary and in order of response
  • Co-regulation

Neuroception

Like all animals, we are designed with a survival system. The first part of this system is detection. Our senses listen for cues of safety or danger within the body, picking up cues from another and listening to the environment. Stephen Porges (the founder of polyvagal theory) called this 'detection for safety' or 'danger neuroception'.

Neuroception is the constant automatic monitoring of self, other and situation for safety or danger and the communication of that monitoring to the brain and nervous system. Neuroception constantly runs in the background, even when we are asleep. Neuroception is the reason we can trust our body; we are literally wired to survive from birth. Severe or repeated trauma can lead to hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance can be frightening and difficult to live with but also frightening to let go of as it can give the illusion of additional safety. No matter how many dangers we face, our neuroception is designed to pick them up and communicate to our autonomic nervous system, which can then act.

The autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system runs from the brain and throughout the body. It has two parts and three modes of function or survival. The two parts are the parasympathetic (which is immobile) and the sympathetic (which is mobile).

The three modes of function are:

Parasympathetic - ventral vagal

Refers to the front part of the vagus nerve. This nerve starts from the brainstem and meets up with the cranial nerves of the face, ear, travels down to the throat and larynx, and makes its way to the heart. It meets with the nerves of the face so we can recognise and give cues of connection to others. Via the middle ear, we can filter out background noise and concentrate on friendly human voices. In this state, heart rate is ready to respond to nuance. This is the mode we are in when curious, calm, being.

Ventral vagal is our safe and social mode. It is the state we are in when feeling OK in our own skin, regulated, safe. In this state, we can focus, talk easily, think clearly.

Sympathetic

The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system runs down the lumbar part of the spinal cord. This mode prepares the body for mobilisation, raising the heart rate, taking blood from the stomach to the muscles, focusing the eyes and other senses, filtering out the sound of human voices and listening for sounds of danger.

Sympathetic has adaptive and survival purposes. Adaptive is playing, running, hunting, moving, e.g. competitive sports and survival is fight/flight.

When we are in sympathetic, we might try to avoid situations, feel irritable or anxious, social situations feel stressful, we may overthink, catastrophise and organisation is difficult.

Parasympathetic - dorsal vagal

The vagus nerve is very long and is made up of different branches. The dorsal vagal is the rear part of the vagal nerve. The dorsal vagal goes from the brainstem to the gut. This mode is immobile shutdown.

Dorsal vagal has adaptive and survival purposes. Adaptive purposes include rest and digest. In survival mode, dorsal vagal is employed when a situation cannot be fought or escaped and results in shutdown, feigned death.

Dorsal vagal is the state where we find it difficult to move, our legs may feel like treacle, it may feel difficult to get out of bed or out of the chair, thoughts feel slow and foggy and motivation is really low. In this state, any social engagement can feel overwhelming.

Co-regulation

As infants, we cannot regulate our own nervous system and heart rate, therefore, need an attachment to another nervous system to develop regulation. We are basically wired to attach and co-regulate. As we get older, we can find other sources of co-regulation such as nature, animals social groups.


How can you increase feelings of safety in your autonomic nervous system?

Notice your breathing

Mindfully noticing your breathing can help to stop circling thoughts. Deep breaths can be useful in regulating emotion. You don’t have to change your breathing at all. Simply notice it and spend four or five breaths focusing on the sensation of your stomach and chest moving as you breathe. 

Splash cold water on your face or wrists

If you feel anxious or irritable, splashing cold water on your face and hands can be a quick anchor in safety. 

Humming or singing

Humming, singing, even listening to certain sounds stimulates the vagal nerve and helps to regulate anxiety, fear emotions. It doesn’t matter whether you join a choir or singalong to the radio. You can try humming before you face a situation that you feel anxious in.

Yoga

Exercise, in general, may be helpful. But research has also found that, when practised regularly, yoga will change fear and trauma responses.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Alsager, Cheshire, ST7
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Written by Jacqueline Karaca, M.Sc. Hons Counselling Psych; B.Sc.Hons Psychology MBACP Reg
Alsager, Cheshire, ST7

Jacquie Karaca is a psychotherapist and author. She practices individual and relationship counselling online.

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