What is Polyvagal Theory

What is Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory is an explanation of how the body responds to social cues and certain stimuli, that also recognizes these responses are involuntary, and describes how and why they occur as they do. By understanding what causes these involuntary emotions to govern how we respond, it’s believed that we may find the ability to control these automatic reactions, at least to some degree.

The framework that makes up polyvagal theory consists of several evolutionary, psychological and neuroscientific constructs relating to emotional regulation, social connection and fear response, and that also share one common trait; being connected to the vagus nerve.

It’s long been believed that the vagus nerves plays a key role in our emotions response, as well as our ability to sense things are about change, for the better or worse. In fact it was Charles Darwin who first published this idea back his groundbreaking book ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’ in which he suggested that our emotions expressions were governed by two-way neural communication between the heart and the brain via the ‘pneumogastric’ nerve; known today as the vagus nerve.

Although the concept of emotional response and our so-called sixth sense being linked to the vagus nerve has been around for centuries now, the polyvagal theory is the first, all-encompassing, theory that attempts to unify all aspects related to this function, with the goal of not only understanding exactly what makes us tick, but how we may be able to better equip ourselves to control, or at least partially affect, these involuntary responses.

The Polyvagal Theory Explained

The polyvagal theory was introduced in 1994 by Ph.D. Stephen Porges; a distinguished university scientist and lecturer who’s currently the Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and also the Director of Kinsey Institute Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Indiana University Bloomington.

The theory outlines how the body’s autonomic nervous system constantly assess a situation then prompts a response from either the sympathetic nervous system, or the parasympethic nervous system. The nervous system then communicates with the endocrine system; the network of organs and glands that control important bodily functions such as metabolism, digestions, energy levels, development and growth, as well as our response to stress, injury and mood.

At the heart of this process appears to be the vagus nerve, which becomes of particular interest because it connects the nervous system with all parts of the endocrine system involved in this process.

Polyvagal Research

Through the study of neural development and phylogeny, we can extract foundational principles and their underlying mechanisms through which the autonomic nervous system leads to feelings of safety and opportunities to co-regulate.
Polyvagal Research

Dr. Porges explains he refers to this this ability to read cues of danger around us as neuroception, and that our responses to these cues are based on three hierarchical stages; immobilization, monilisation, and social engagement.

It’s noted that the way in which our nervous system perceives threats directly affects how our brain and body will respond to the situation, and that experiencing traumatic events can alter our perception of danger; causing our responses to become less logical.

In the same way that trauma can disrupt our body’s natural response to danger, therapy can help those affected by this heightened sense of fear to readjust and reduce the occurance of irrational response.

The Nervous System

How the central, peripheral, somatic and autonomic nervous systems work…

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system contains all the other nerves outside of the brain and spine.

Both systems can be categorized into two; the somatic (voluntary) nervous system and the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system.

Whilst the somatic voluntary nervous system is responsible for the communication between our muscles and the brain; allowing us to move as we wish, the autonomic nervous system is constantly scanning the environment for cues, interpreting the situation, then dictating how we respond to the scenario.

The autonomic nervous system consists of two distinct systems:

Sympathetic nervous system; this governs our response to dangerous cues, also known as our fight or flight response, if any signs of danger are detected the sympathetic nervous system makes our adrenal glands release epinephrine to provide a quick boost of adrenaline.

Parasympathetic nervous system: this system takes over once no threats are detected. Also referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system, it helps to calm the body by lowering heart rate, blood pressure and regulating digestion.

The Vagus Nerve

As mentioned, the vagus nerve, is essentially the super highway that connects the nervous system with the organs and glands of the endocrine system. The term vagus translates into latin as wandering, named as such because the long nerve wanders, and meanders, throughout the body.

Polyvagal Theory

The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, it starts at lower part of the brain called the medulla oblongata, and runs down the body; splitting in two along the way, before terminating at the stomach.

Along the way the vagus nerve connects parts of the inner ear and ear cannel, esophagus, heart, trachea, larynx, lungs, and abdomen.

We already know quite a lot about the vagus nerve. For example, where the nerve splits into two; the ventral and dorsal sides, each side has been shown to respond to stimuli in opposing ways.

  • The ventral side (ventral referring to venter, meaning belly in latin) runs along the front of the stomach, and responds to safety cues in the environment.
  • The dorsal side (dorsal referring to dorsum meaning back in latin) runs along the back, and responds to danger cues around us.

Three Developmental Stages of Response

One of the biggest revelations presented by the theory is that our autonomous responses to social cues occur in a specific hierarchical order with serious danger at the top, manageable danger in the middle, and finally social engagement once not threat of danger is detected. The three developmental stage of response in polyvagal theory are explained as follows:

  • Immobilization: Described as the oldest strongest pathway, this results in an immobilizing response to signs of extreme danger. This causes us to shut down, become nub, and freeze.
  • Mobilization: Next to develop in the evolutionary hierarchy, this kicks the sympathetic nervous system into gear enabling us to mobilize when faced with danger. It helps us jump into action with a quick adrenaline rush to aid the escape from danger.
  • Social engagement. The latest addition to hierarchy of responses comes from the ventral side of the vagus nerve. Once no danger is detected it causes the parasympathetic nervous system to jump into action; providing feelings of safety and satisfying social engagement and causing us to feel safe, calm, and collected.

The Response Hierarchy in Daily Life

Polyvagal theory suggests that as we engage with the world, there will be moments when we will feel safe and others when we feel danger, and that our emotions are fluid in reacting to stimuli which sees us move in and out of different levels of comfort based on these hierarchical responses.

For example, we may feel safe when embracing with loved ones, however we can immediately break out of these feeling when presented with danger. Our life experiences can greatly govern how we respond, with past situations acting as life lessons to improve our intuition. However, it’s known that trauma can have a huge detrimental effect on these responses; altering and ultimately messing up our logical responses, albeit involuntary.

How to Combat the Effects of Trauma On Response

Without the affects of trauma, we consistently scan the environment and our nervous system is able to perceive threats clearly and react accordingly. However, the affects of trauma can disturb this process and in turn, cause us to respond in a more irrational manner.

If you are experiencing situations of excess immobilization as a result of trauma, the it may be possible to treat this condition using certain therapies such as meditation, breathing exercises, physical exercise, and psychotherapy.

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