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Polyvagal Theory: What is it actually and how can it help me?

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Polyvagal theory is a neurobiological framework developed by Michigan State University graduate Dr. Stephen Porges. It provides insights into how your autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to the stress in our lives and how it can influence our emotions and social behaviors. The theory is based on our understanding that our ANS, which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, plays a crucial role in regulating our physiological and emotional states. According to polyvagal theory, the ANS has evolved over time, and its functions can be categorized into three subsystems. With that being said, first, let's get into the basic science behind it and how it works. The visual model below can help you gain a better understanding. After the science jargon I will provide an explanation of its use in therapy and its uses to practically manage your stress. The science:

Polyvagal theory identifies three main subsystems within the autonomic nervous system, each associated with different physiological and behavioral responses. These subsystems are:

Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC): The ventral vagal complex is associated with your feelings of safety, social connection, and engagement. Utilizing techniques such as mindfulness exercises results in the activation of the VVC promoting a calm and regulated state, allowing for social interaction, communication, and emotional well-being.

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for mobilizing the body's resources in response to perceived threats or challenges (stress). It triggers the "fight-or-flight" response, preparing your body for action. Activation of the SNS increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness, and is associated with heightened arousal, stress, and defensive behaviors. Continued and ongoing stress can actually lead to overactivation of the SNS leading to burnout, depression and anxiety.

Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC): The dorsal vagal complex is associated with your body's most primitive defense mechanisms. It includes the branch of the vagus nerve called the dorsal vagus. Activation of the DVC leads to immobilization and disconnection as a survival response. This is often referred to as the "freeze" response and is associated with symptoms of shutdown, dissociation, and hypoarousal. Overstimulation of the DVC in response to ongoing stress can also lead to negative affects on your health, whether it be physical, social or emotional.

So now that we have the technical piece out of the way, how does it apply to you? What does all of this mean in therapy or for your everyday use? The areas of your life that can be affected are as follows:

Self-awareness: Polyvagal theory provides a framework for understanding your body's physiological responses to stress and trauma. By learning about the different states of the autonomic nervous system (fight/flight, freeze, and social engagement), you can gain insight into your own patterns of response and better understand why you may react in certain ways to your stress. This self-awareness can support your own personal growth and help you develop strategies for self-regulation.

Emotional regulation: Polyvagal theory emphasizes the importance of cultivating a regulated nervous system to promote emotional well-being. By learning techniques to shift from states of stress or shutdown to a more regulated state, you can enhance your ability to manage difficult emotions, reduce anxiety, and improve your overall emotional resilience.

Trauma healing: Polyvagal theory has particular relevance in trauma healing. It offers insights into the neurophysiological underpinnings of trauma responses and provides tools for addressing trauma-related triggers and symptoms. Understanding your body's physiological responses to trauma can help you feel less shame or self-blame about your reactions, empowering you to engage in trauma-informed practices and seek appropriate support.

Enhancing relationships: Polyvagal theory highlights the role of social connection and safety in regulating the nervous system. By understanding the importance of creating safe and supportive environments for yourself and others, you can cultivate healthier and more satisfying relationships. You can also gain insight into how your own nervous system regulation impacts your interactions with others, fostering empathy and compassion.

Self-care and well-being: The principles of polyvagal theory can also be applied to self-care practices. By incorporating techniques such as breathwork, mindfulness, and grounding exercises, you can regulate or actually attempt to retrain your nervous system, reduce stress, and enhance your overall well-being. Polyvagal-informed self-care practices can help support your mental, emotional, and physical health.

Hopefully this brief introduction gives you a better understanding of polyvagal theory and peaks your interest to further investigate its uses in positively managing your health. It's important to note that while polyvagal theory offers valuable insights, its application may require guidance from a trained professional, such as a therapist or counselor, who can provide personalized support and help you integrate the theory into your life in the most effective way possible. In therapy polyvagal theory can also be incorporated along-side other techniques which, here in this blog, we will be introducing in future posts such as cognitive behavioral therapy or trauma therapy.

By Jason Ross, MSW Intern


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