Are you aware of the important role our nervous system plays in our mental health? We all know that the nervous system is responsible for regulating vital functions like heart rate, digestion, and even social interactions. But it turns out that the nervous system is also intertwined with our emotional well-being.
Yes, you read that right – the very system that governs our bodily functions also regulates our mental state. And this interplay can be explained by the Polyvagal Theory — a groundbreaking theory developed by Stephen Porges that places the vagus nerve at the center of emotion regulation, social engagement, and the ways we respond to fear.
Polyvagal Theory uncovers the connection between our autonomic nervous system and our responses to stress, expressed in the fight, flight, and freeze reactions. This approach is especially effective in trauma treatment as it explains why trauma survivors experience dissociation.
In this article, we’ll help you understand the main principles of Polyvagal Theory, discuss how it can help your mental health, and explain why it’s so effective in trauma treatment.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
The Polyvagal Theory is an innovative scientific perspective introduced by neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges and associates. The main idea of the theory is that the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system has equipped us with neurophysiological substrates for adaptive behavioral strategies (Porges, 2009).
According to the Polyvagal Theory, our physiological state plays a crucial role in shaping our behaviors and emotional reactions. In particular, the Polyvagal Theory identifies three primary states that our nervous system can adopt:
- The mobilized state
- The immobilized state
- The social engagement state
Traditionally, the autonomic nervous system has been recognized as a dual system, consisting of:
- The sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for activating fight or flight responses (the mobilized state). When we perceive a threat or danger, this state gets activated and prepares our body for rapid action and self-defense.
- The parasympathetic nervous system which is supporting rest and restoration (the immobilized state). It’s characterized by decreased movement, reduced heart rate, and a sense of disconnection. It serves as a survival strategy to minimize the risk of further harm.
However, Polyvagal Theory introduces a new perspective by highlighting a third type of nervous system response centered around social connection. This response combines activation and calming elements and is known as the social engagement system. This system gets activated when we consider the environment safe (Porges, 2022).
As a result, we express our feelings and use facial expressions to communicate with others and understand ourselves. But when we perceive the environment as dangerous, our sympathetic nervous system naturally gets activated, and we automatically prioritize survival. Therefore, we either enter fight or flight mode or we shift into freezing – our dorsal vagal system shuts down, our social capacities get diminished, and we return to our primitive states.
The Polyvagal Theory emphasizes the importance of recognizing and regulating these different states to promote a sense of safety, social connection, and overall well-being.
3 Pathways of the Nervous System
Porges’ work offers a deeper understanding of a three-part system and how the vagus nerve connects and communicates within our body.
He introduced the term “neuroception” to describe how human bodies are unconsciously influenced by the autonomic nervous system. Thanks to this mechanism, we can scan the environment around us before we consciously start thinking about it. This means that we can detect dangers without even realizing it and this determines our instinctive behavior.
According to Porges, the autonomic nervous system consists of 3 subdivisions that produce different physiological states and, therefore, lead to different responses:
- Dorsal Vagal Pathway — The oldest subdivision which belongs to the parasympathetic nervous system. When we’re in extreme danger and can’t escape the threat physically, we try to dissociate from it mentally and shut down to survive.
Therefore, this pathway responds by immobilization and allows us to enter a state of “freeze” when we encounter a situation that feels beyond our control. It may be adaptive to cope with traumatic situations immediately, but it has negative effects on our mental and emotional well-being in the long term.
- The Sympathetic Pathway — The second subdivision of the ANS is responsible for energizing our body for physical action in times of danger. This pathway is also known as the “mobilization state” because it enables us to automatically respond to immediate threats without the need for conscious thought.
This pathway triggers “fight or flight” behaviors, which means our body either prefers to confront the threat or flee from it. In either case, it’s an adaptive response to a threat that allows us to focus on the immediate demands of the situation. However, the activation of this system compromises higher-level cognitive processes and leads to a misreading of social cues.
- The Ventral Vagal Pathway — Finally, it’s the most evolved subdivision of the ANS which is associated with social engagement and connection. This pathway allows us to experience a sense of safety and connection with others, engage in positive social interactions and focus on our emotional well-being.
Whenever the environment is perceived as safe, this system emerges as more active, and we feel more free to express ourselves. That’s why therapeutic treatments based on Polyvagal Theory aim to help individuals balance their nervous systems by decreasing freezing responses and activating the vagal system in a positive and flexible manner.
Polyvagal Theory in Trauma Treatment
In traditional trauma-focused psychotherapy, the main emphasis is often placed on addressing the fight or flight responses associated with trauma. However, therapists who rely on Polyvagal Theory target the “freeze” response instead and try to help clients develop coping mechanisms to survive the shutdown phase in stressful situations.
How do they manage to do so?
Therapists who rely on this approach try to balance a top-down perspective on explaining trauma responses with a bottom-up perspective. This means that trauma survivors often have biased neuroception — they perceive events subjectively, and that’s why some people perceive the same experience as traumatic while others don’t. According to Polyvagal Theory, posttraumatic stress is an outcome of the subjective experience instead of the event itself.
In traditional approaches, therapists try to focus more on the way an individual interprets the traumatic event and less on the response of their nervous system. However, Polyvagal Theory suggests prioritizing neuroception over perception and focusing on a bottom-up perspective. Indeed, about 80% of the sensory information we receive from the environment is sent by vagus nerve fibers from the body to the brain (Howland, 2014). Therefore, the majority of our thoughts are influenced by the state of our nervous system.
Considering this, trauma-informed therapists who apply Polyvagal Theory in practice aim to help clients improve neuroception and develop a more accurate understanding of what is happening around them. Just like Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry suggest, they ask “What Happened to You?”. However, they aim to understand how the client’s nervous system responded to an event instead of exploring the details of their subjective experience. For this, they rely on facial expressions, body language, eye contact patterns, and other non-verbal cues to assess the client’s physiological state and emotional regulation.
This is a partial explanation of how they can help decrease the “freeze” response in stressful situations and activate the vagal system instead, which promotes a more accurate reflection of reality. Consequently, applying Polyvagal Theory in therapeutic practice can promote resilience and positively impact overall psychological well-being.
To sum up, Polyvagal Theory offers a unique and valuable perspective on understanding the human nervous system and its role in shaping behaviors, emotional reactions, and responses to trauma. Polyvagal techniques can help individuals struggling with trauma, anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues and promote better regulation of their physiological and emotional states in times of stress.
If you notice that you have trouble coping with stressful events or want to process past traumas, our professional trauma-informed therapists at Health for Life Counseling are here to help. Reach out to us at our offices in Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or talk to our counselors online to start your journey towards better mental health and more fulfilling life.