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The Polyvagal Theory: Understanding the Science of Connection and Healing

By the IJNGP team

Sep 15, 2023

Various factors, including our environment, significantly influence the feeling of safety, security, and connection we experience, the situations we encounter, the individuals we interact with, and the nature of our relationships. There are occasions when we perceive hostility, threats, and challenges, as well as feelings of being pushed and oppressed in our interactions with people, environments, and circumstances. Conversely, there are also times when we feel secure, respected, protected, and supported.

The nervous system serves as the body's regulatory, communication, and control system, overseeing various mental processes like thought, memory, and learning. Additionally, it plays a role in maintaining homeostasis alongside the endocrine system. Communication within the body occurs through the transmission of electrical signals via specialized nerve cells known as neurons.

This system is broadly divided into two main components: the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which extends throughout the body to relay information from the central nervous system to organs and limbs. The peripheral nervous system further separates into the somatic nervous system, responsible for voluntary movements, and the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS can be subdivided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). These two components collaborate unconsciously to regulate various bodily functions dynamically. When the body encounters a stressor, the SNS activates the fight-flight-freeze response automatically, preparing the body to respond by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Conversely, the PSNS manages the rest-repair-digest response, helping the body return to homeostasis and preserve its natural functions.

Imagine your body as a car, and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) as the car's engine management system, which controls how the car operates in different situations.

The fight-flight-freeze mode is like your car suddenly encountering a dangerous situation on the road, such as a sudden obstacle or another reckless driver. In this mode, your body's ANS revs up the engine, just like you would press the gas pedal hard. It gets ready for immediate action – either to fight (like accelerating to escape), to flee (like quickly changing lanes or braking hard), or to freeze (like slamming on the brakes to avoid a collision). It's like your body's "performance mode."

Now, think of this as your car being parked safely in your garage. In this mode, your ANS operates in a relaxed manner, similar to how your car idles quietly in the garage. Your body is focused on rest, repair, and digestion, much like your car's engine is running quietly and efficiently while it's not in motion. It's all about maintenance and recovery.

Just like a car can shift between gears and modes based on the driving conditions, your body switches between these ANS modes depending on the situations it encounters. Hence, your autonomic nervous system adapts your body's functions to respond effectively to different circumstances, just as a car's engine management system adjusts its performance based on driving conditions.

But that's not all the wisdom of our body can do. People assess safety and danger through two distinct processes: perception and neuroception. Perception relies on our conscious awareness to detect signals indicating safety or danger. In contrast, neuroception involves our nervous system autonomously evaluating risks, often without our conscious awareness, searching for cues of safety and danger that may not register in our conscious thoughts. Neural perception shapes our overall experience and triggers automatic physiological responses.

For example, someone who endured persistent verbal abuse during childhood may be highly attuned to the tone and volume of voices around them, even if no hostility is intended toward them. Neuroception, in this case, is attuned to words that convey safety or danger. Although we may not be consciously aware of the neurocognitive processes occurring in our subconscious, we may notice bodily responses (such as increased heartbeat, churning of the stomach, etc.) associated with feelings of security or insecurity.

This is how Porges describes neuroception in his book, The Polyvagal Theory:

By processing information from the environment through the senses, the nervous system continually evaluates risk. I have coined the term neuroception to describe how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. Because of our heritage as a species, neuroception takes place in primitive parts of the brain, without our conscious awareness.

However, our neurocognitive abilities can sometimes misinterpret situations, either failing to detect a genuine hazard or wrongly perceiving a threat when none exists. When our sense of danger is skewed, it can trigger outdated defence mechanisms, causing our nervous system to become stuck in a fight-or-flight response or shut down.

Traditionally, the nervous system has been described as a binary system with activating signals linked to heightened alertness and calming signals associated with relaxation. However, Dr. Stephen Porges introduced a groundbreaking concept called the Polyvagal Theory, which has transformed our comprehension of the human autonomic nervous system and its profound influence on our health and social interactions.

The polyvagal theory introduces a third type of nervous system response termed the ventral vagal system (VVS), characterized by a harmonious blend of activation and relaxation. The VVS plays a pivotal role in managing relationships and is rooted in the vagus nerve, often referred to as the state of social engagement and safety.

Consider a versatile tool, like a Swiss Army knife, which has multiple functions depending on how it's configured.

In one configuration, it's a cutting tool with a sharp blade, similar to our body's "connection system." This state allows us to smoothly interact with others, much like the knife efficiently cuts through materials when needed. It's when we feel secure, open, and able to express ourselves with ease, reflecting the harmony of a well-tuned instrument.

However, in response to a perceived threat or challenge, the knife can transform into a different mode, like a pair of pliers or scissors. In this state, it becomes more rigid and ready for action, just as our body shifts into a "fight-or-flight" response. We might feel anxious, vigilant, and prepared to protect ourselves, akin to the knife being ready to grip or cut.

But there's a third configuration: a small, compact form, perhaps containing a hidden tool like a toothpick or tweezers. This state represents a withdrawal or shutdown response, similar to when our body “freezes” in the face of extreme danger. It's as if the knife retreats into itself, offering minimal functionality. In this state, we might feel numb, disconnected, and emotionally distant, much like the knife concealing its inner tools.

The key similarity is that just as the Swiss Army knife adapts to different situations by changing its form, our body and nervous system adapt to varying levels of safety and threat by shifting between these states. Our goal, like that of the knife, is to remain in the most flexible and functional state—akin to the knife being in its open, ready-to-use configuration—where we can connect, adapt, and thrive.

Deb Dana introduced the concept of the polyvagal ladder exercise to help grasp the three distinct reactions within the nervous system. This exercise envisions the nervous system as a ladder divided into high, middle, and low sections for better comprehension:

  1. Ventral Vagal: At the top, it's our social interaction system, promoting trust, with a normal heart rate and clear communication.

  2. Sympathetic Vagal: In the middle, it's fight-or-flight, causing anxiety and vigilance, often misinterpreting neutral signals as threats.

  3. Dorsal Vagal: At the bottom, it's a freeze response, leading to numbness, disconnection, and surrender when facing extreme danger.

In challenging situations, we often find ourselves positioned towards the lower or middle end of the scale, primarily because we tend to perceive these situations as exceeding our available resources, pushing us into what can be termed a CRASH state. These CRASH states are typically marked by limited resources and prove unhelpful in achieving our objectives. Such states frequently arise when we encounter something intimidating, unfamiliar, or become ensnared in a mental loop that hinders our ability to think clearly. A CRASH state can be likened to reverting to a survival strategy of fight, flight, or freeze, resulting in potential confusion, conflict, difficulty in letting go, and inertia. Essentially, the goal is to transition from a state of under-resourced to one that is rich in resources. This shift from the CRASH state to what we can refer to as the COACH, something that is of utmost importance in fostering client contentment and progress in therapy.

CRASH stands for the following:

C - contraction

R - reaction

A - analysis paralysis

S - separation

H - hurt and hatred

COACH stands for the following:

C - centred

O - open

A - attending with awareness

C - connected

H - holding

In the ever-evolving landscape of psychology and neurobiology, the Polyvagal Theory stands as a monumental framework, shedding light on the intricate dance between our bodies and minds. Dr Stephen Porges' pioneering work has unveiled the profound impact of the autonomic nervous system on our emotional well-being, social interactions, and overall health. As we journey through the realms of connection, vigilance, and self-preservation, this theory reminds us that our responses are not merely reactions but intricate adaptations to the world around us. By understanding the Polyvagal Theory, we gain a deeper insight into our own humanity and the powerful forces that shape our lives. It paves the way for healing, resilience, and the nurturing of connections that lie at the core of our human experience. In an age of increasing complexity, this theory serves as a beacon, guiding us towards a greater understanding of ourselves and our shared journey through the tapestry of emotions and experiences that define our lives.





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