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Polyvagal Theory – Stephen Porges

  • February 27, 2019
  • By Kathleen Francis
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Stephen Porges is a neuroscientist who brought to the world Polyvagal Theory. Through his research into cranial nerve responses and its physiological impact on the body, he proposed a theory of how the nervous system is implicated in the brain and body, and how it impacts us psychologically through emotion, behaviour and cognition. His theory compliments many psychotherapeutic interventions and techniques, as well as explains how healthy attachment (connection) to the important people in our lives can help children (and adults) to learn how to self-regulate the mind and body when under duress.

Although complex, his ideas have helped support the idea of the mind-body connection. I like to say that the mind was never separated from the body in the first place. It was only humans that did that! In fact, new science is demonstrating that perhaps the mind lies in the body after all - the mind is truly embodied (Interpersonal Neurobiology - Daniel Siegel).

Polyvagal Theory for the Layperson

We have all heard of the 'fight or flight' response. The idea is that if we are faced with danger, our body has a reflex that will keep us safe: either I will fight the danger to survive, or I will flee (run away). Physiologically, these responses are linked to the part of the human brain that developed through evolution, commonly called the 'reptilian brain' as it is the type of brain physiology present in reptiles. In addition to these innate responses to threat, there are 2 other responses that are less commonly known: 'freeze or faint'. Most of us can relate to having the experience of 'freezing' in times of stress - being unable to find our words, our mind going blank, and so on. In evolutionary terms, this response to stress and danger is related to the reptilian reflex of camouflage. Faint, similarly, is when the nervous system slows down the physiological processes of the body to the extent that a predator would sense that its victim is not alive - 'playing dead'.

Each of these responses is an instinctual reflex that the body can rely on to keep the organism safe. Additionally, in humans (and perhaps mammals), each state has various emotional and cognitive responses or sensations associated with them. For example, fight would be linked with anger, thoughts of vengeance and righteousness. Flight would be associated with strong feelings of fear and the need for space and distance to establish a sense of safety from the threat. Freeze can be associated with numbing and helplessness; often in trauma victims, there is shame because they wonder why they did not speak up or protect themselves, eventhough freezing may have been the most protective response that protected them from further danger or trauma. Finally, fainting can be seen as a form of disassociation and can be felt as overwhelm, hopelessness and giving up. However, once again, it can be more life-affirming for people to see this as their body's way to ensure survival in a situation where their nervous system felt so endangered that it shut down to the extent that it only maintained basic physiological processes to keep one alive.

So how does this help me?

Well, knowing that some of our responses have been out of our conscious control can help us in several ways:

  • to stop self-blaming, knowing that although our responses were not ideal nor perhaps how we wanted to handle a situation, that our bodies were intent on ensuring our survival, and we can rely on those mechanisms to keep us safe when indeed we are in danger.
  • to have a better understanding of any trauma we may have experienced. Seeing our past through the lens of polyvagal theory can help us move forward from any shame we may carry from the trauma, knowing that our body responded in a way that was life-enhancing.
  • to better understand our current responses to stress and perceived threats in our daily lives.
  • to learn interventions that can help us self-regulate and calm down our nervous system, whether through practices like yoga, meditation and breathwork, or working with a psychotherapist to unravel past trauma and learn new ways to safely handle stress in our present day lives.

Key ideas

vagus nerve. self-regulation. fight-flight-freeze-faint. trauma. ptsd. stress. grounding.

Visit his website for more information at http://stephenporges.com

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