An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory (and why its useful!)
'Polyvagal theory' is a term that is all over the place in the therapy, self-help, healing and wellbeing worlds right now. It often goes hand in hand with the terms 'trauma informed', 'somatic' and 'window of tolerance.' But what on earth does this all mean and why is it so popular right now?
A window into trauma, resilience and our innate abilities to adapt and heal
At the very heart of polyvagal theory is the beautiful dance between our humanity and our biology. So often, we've been taught and socialised to think and act like our minds and our bodies are two totally different and separate entities. Our bodies to so many of us are just a container or a vessel, something to just hold and transport the essence of 'us', whereas the juicy stuff goes on in our minds and our thoughts (and perhaps our soul too, depending on your beliefs around this). Either way, its common knowledge that our thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions and our experiencing of the world belongs firmly within the domain of the mind. Or is it...?
Polyvagal theory proposes that our thoughts, feelings, reactions and patterns of behaviour are all a lot more intertwined with our bodily responses than we might initially think, with the autonomic nervous system acting as the lightning-fast bridge between the two. (This blog post won't go into detail around the autonomic nervous system as its a huge topic all on it's own, but I'll provide some links at the end for those who are interested. For the purpose of this blog, we just need to know that one of its jobs is the communication of safety or risk to our bodily systems - eg our muscles, the release of stress hormones and adrenaline etc).
Stephen Porges, the founder of polyvagal theory, coined the term 'neuroception', which means our autonomic nervous system's rapid perception of danger or safety in any given moment.
Neuroception and the 'fight, flight, freeze' responses
Neuroception is incredibly important for our survival - it judges, within a fraction of a moment, if we are safe or if our survival responses of 'fight, flight (run away) or freeze' need to be deployed.
If we're crossing the road and a car unexpectedly accelerates round the corner, its absolutely necessary to engage our 'flight' response and flee out of it's path. In certain situations, puffing ourselves up to make ourselves look intimidating, or to even fight our way out of a dangerous situation might be appropriate. If the risk of pain or death is judged to be high by our neuroception, or if it feels that we are powerless within the threatening situation, 'freeze' might be the best response - the predator might not see us if we play dead, or at the very least our body will have released temporarily painkilling hormones into our system to make our suffering less pronounced if it does pounce on us.
These responses aren't unwanted or 'bad' (a common misconception), they're a wonderful collaboration between our nervous system and the rest of our bodies to help us to survive. If we were always calm and never experienced 'fight, flight or freeze', we'd be in serious trouble. The aim isn't to always aspire for a sense of calm, the aim is to develop healthy neuroception that can respond to stimuli appropriately and proportionately. If our lives have been relatively free of trauma, if we were attuned to well and sensitively as children, if we have a social circle in which we feel truly heard and safe to be ourselves, then it is likely that we will have healthy and appropriate neuroception. However, when we've suffered trauma or neglect (or sometimes just because of the influence of parts of our modern day culture), things can sometimes go a bit haywire.
Negativity bias, trauma and the impact of modern society
As mammals, we are primed to notice danger more than we notice safety. This is an incredibly effective evolutionary survival response. A simple way to think about it is as follows:
If you're walking in nature in a place where venomous snakes are common and you see a long, thin shadow in the grass you will probably freeze and assume (at least at first) that its a snake. Your heart beat may increase, your muscles might be primed to run away and your thoughts might start rehearsing the scenario around what you would do if the snake bit you. Its much more likely that you'll think, 'oh no! That's a snake' before investigating than 'oh just step on it, its a stick.' The reason for this is very simple - those of us who assume that a snake is a stick, and therefore step on it, will be more likely to get injured or die. Those of us who assume that a stick is a snake, and therefore assess the situation carefully or avoid it, will survive and might just feel a bit embarrassed about their 'over the top' reaction!
In fact, the embarrassment is part of the problem, and means that many of us don't discharge this 'survival' energy after a scary experience in the way that we're meant to. In nature, if a mammal engages in 'fight, flight or freeze' behaviour it will naturally run around and shake/tremble afterwards. This completes the stress response and creates the equivalent of a reset. After the 'snake or stick' situation described above, you might notice yourself laughing to discharge nervous energy, trembling or shuddering. You might have a burst of energy once you realise that you're now safe or the situation's over. These are all normal and healthy responses.
But if you're embarrassed, you might be tempted to stifle these responses, to 'put on a front' that you were never scared and to carry on as normal for fear of judgement. We do this so often in our modern day society. After a stressful work meeting, where our heart might be beating furiously in anger at an insensitive or patronising boss, we stifle our biological responses and push them down. It wouldn't be wise (or acceptable) to engage in fight or flight responses with your boss - you'd probably get fired if you lashed out or ran away! Many of us struggle with channeling that 'fight' response into healthy assertiveness, or we struggle against oppressive social systems where this isn't a realistic option, so we pretend that we're fine. Not many work places provide punchbags or breaks to go and run our adrenaline off!
Likewise, if we have an argument with a loved one, we might refuse to cry, as we don't want to be seen as 'weak' or upset. After a traumatic experience, we might feel 'too busy' and like we 'have to be strong', so we never fully acknowledge how much it affected us. Bit by bit, these unfinished stress responses build up and our fuse gets shorter (as our autonomic nervous system seeks balance and looks for ways to discharge the energy) or perhaps we just begin to feel a sense of numbness creeping in (as the natural response to a threat that feels to intimidating to fight or run from is to freeze and shut down)...
We might wonder why we're anxious or angry over 'little things', why we can't feel our emotions strongly anymore, why we're always tired (stuck in freeze), why we begin to seek solace in numbing substances or activities (my go-to numbing activity is binge-watching Netflix or mindless phone scrolling), why life feels like its lost it's meaning, why we feel constantly 'on edge' and can't relax. We might wonder what is 'wrong' with us, when in reality it may well be that we're stuck in survival mode.
It's not our fault. Our modern society teaches us that it is noble to be disembodied from our emotional needs, admirable to be able to put up with endless stress and pressure and that 'resilience' is always the end goal, even if it costs us our ability to feel and process our pain (and joy). Our autonomic nervous systems are so often calling out for acknowledgement, compassion and the completion of our stress responses in a safe environment.
For some of us, that might be as simple as tracking our subtle (and sometimes not to subtle) fight/flight/freeze responses (also be aware of 'fawn' - an offshoot of freeze where we say and do whatever feels necessary to appease and please others). Do we have a tendency to veer to one response instead of the others? Do we feel stuck in any of our survival responses more than we would like to? Do we give ourselves healthy opportunities to discharge e.g. exercise that raises the heart rate, healthy expressions of rage (scribbling, punching pillows, a punchbag)? Do we allow ourselves to feel our emotions without shame or the need to 'be strong?
For others, we might need the help of a professional to slowly and safely help us to navigate this territory. Many of us aren't totally sure how we feel or what our needs are, as we're so used to pushing down our natural responses. Working on the ability to resource and to feel into an embodied sense of safety, to develop a sense of self-compassion, then to begin to slowly and carefully explore how emotions show up in our bodies and how to meet our own needs, can be incredibly healing. Going slowly and safely, without a sense of rushing, is also incredibly important, particularly when working with trauma. It's not a race, its a gradual, slow process of letting go of the old patterns that kept us safe but now no longer serve us. Tiny steps are big steps when retraining our neuroception. Slowly and safely is the key.
For more information, here are some recommended resources:
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection by Deb Dana
The Polyvagal Guide to the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges
Irene Lyon's website: https://www.irenelyon.com/
Irene Lyon's Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBkXgr0E9ZWUg4iSDEUKqVA
Autonomic nervous system overview: https://www.verywellhealth.com/autonomic-nervous-system-anatomy-2488639