POLYVAGAL THEORY EXPLAINED

Polyvagal Theory is practical guide to the nervous system 

Polyvagal Theory is a working model of the human nervous system, that describes how the autonomic nervous system operates. It helps us to understand how our nervous system drives our behaviour and emotional responses to life. I see polyvagal theory as a road map, an inner guide that shows us the way home when we get knocked off centre.

What does Polyvagal theory bring to the table?

On our first look into the anatomy of stress we'll see that the sympathetic nervous system is behind the fight or flight reflex and the parasympathetic nervous system relaxes us and regulates our body in rest and digest mode. 

Polyvagal Theory adds that the parasympathetic nervous system can also make us freeze up like a rabbit in the headlights, when we don't know what else to do. Or go into total shutdown and withdrawal after a traumatic event or prolonged suffering. In every day life it can make us instinctually "people-please" - A tendency to hide our true thoughts and feelings to pacify others, and say or do things we don't agree with to keep them happy.
Just as an ostrich puts its head in the sand or a turtle retreats inside its own shell, sometimes the world is too much to handle. We curl up in a metaphorical ball and we toughen our skin to protect ourselves. 

Dr. Porges claims the dorsal vagal complex is at work here. Normally this part of the nervous system works behind the scenes digesting our food, but if all else fails it springs into action to protect us from sticky situations. In the most extreme example it’s what makes us faint, but it can go almost unnoticed when we “check out” and start to drift away from a difficult conversation...

What is the autonomic nervous system anyway? 

If the word autonomic feels a little new and strange, let’s unpack it. Autonomic sounds a bit like automatic, but our bodies are not machines hard wired with programming that we cannot change. I think it’s more helpful to think of autonomic in terms of being 
autonomous i.e self-regulating. 

We are living beings not machines. We live in a fluid reality and the organic intelligence of our body is adaptive, not programmed. That said, it is useful to consider that there is a kind of operating system that runs different behaviour “programs” within the hardware of the autonomic nervous system. According to the situation we are faced with, we switch from one mode to another.

Let's face it, we've all been hurt before. We all know what it’s like to feel out of depth or in danger. As children, we create coping mechanisms to navigate this world, adapting to family dynamics and social situations. We discover what gets us attention and affection from others or how to diffuse difficult situations.
"The ability to respond to and recover from
the challenges of daily living
is a marker of well-being, 
and depends on the actions of 
the autonomic nervous system"
Deb Dana

How is Polyvagal Theory a working model of the nervous system? 

Our nervous system works like a set of traffic lights. It has a hierarchy of three states, a natural order to our responses to the world. Our nervous system would always prefer to talk someone down with a smile than punch them in the face, or curl up in a ball and pretend they don't exist. 

The thing is a ventral response isn't always available to us. Either we haven't got the patience or perhaps someone’s facial expression or tone of voice triggers a unconscious memory of a past hurt. Instead, we instinctively enter a sympathetic state of stress, and go on the offensive or defensive. Many of us learnt as children that anger was not socially acceptable, leaving us no option but to go dorsal, repress our true feelings and people-please.

Personally, I believe there are as many patterns as there are people in the world. Polyvagal Theory is here to remind us that the nervous system is both listening to and influencing our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. This helps us to recognise that there is nothing inherently wrong with us. 

Much of our learned behaviour is unconscious. Our nervous system will always swoop in to protect us from perceived dangers. I truly believe that knowing this is a breath of fresh air. It helps us to find self-compassion and smile at our reactions.

This gives us valuable self knowledge that allows us to come back into regulation with ease, rather than get stuck in a reactive moment. Let's take a in depth look at the 3 parts of the autonomic nervous system; ventral, dorsal and sympathetic:
"If you want to improve the world,
start by making people feel safer"
Dr. Stephen Porges

The Ventral Vagal Complex

We are social beings. Humanity would never have survived alone, but together we can thrive. Dr. Porges describes the ventral vagal complex as a web of interconnected nerves that govern the heart, shoulders, neck and face. Particularly the part of the lower face from the eyes, cheeks and mouth, down to the chin. Just think of all the facial expressions that are possible in this space, and how much of the language of emotion and empathy is expressed here. 

The ventral vagal complex allows us to connect to and celebrate our humanity. In Polyvagal terms it gives us "social engagement". It is the seat of creativity, spontaneity and two way communication, necessary to work as a team and thrive as a tribe. Literally it’s the part of human anatomy that connects us with other people in a good face to face or heart to heart. 

When open and engaged, the ventral vagal complex helps us to listen to each other and express our own ideas clearly. It is the functional part of us that generates emotion such as joy and compassion as well as forging our belonging.
ventral vagal complex state cranial nerves face heart
On the inside, it feels like being receptive and open to life. Secure enough to open up and let other people in, safe enough to talk about what’s really going on below the surface, and connected enough to our inner world that we can listen to other people’s feelings objectively.

On the outside, a ventral vagal state looks like confidence. Imagine an outgoing, playful person with a bubbly personality. Or, when mixed with a little bit of sympathetic or dorsal energy, a serene yet attentive, or deeply spiritual person. Our nervous system often blends different measures of energy from its separate parts to create the colourful cocktails of human experience.

A flexible posture comes to mind, like bamboo blowing in the wind. Shoulders back, chin tucked in, head lifted up - that's right, Tai Chi!

What brings you back home? As children we were all naturally ventral - open, engaged, creative, fun-loving, playful, and immersed in the moment. As adults it's when our nervous system feels safe that we can truly be ourselves. We naturally feel this when we cuddle up to a loved one, or stroke our pets. Doing the inner work is a process of self-compassion to find our way home.
"When we feel safe we communicate, cooperate and even share." 
Stanley Rosenberg

The Sympathetic Nervous System

In the modern world, it’s unlikely you will actually be chased through the jungle by a tiger. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is more likely to be triggered by things like annoying people, demanding bosses and having too much to do in too little time. That sets the stage for constant triggering without the chance to reset. As a result, stress gets carried over from moment to moment, and builds up throughout the day and over a lifetime.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is visible on the upper part of the face: the eyebrows and forehead. Think of frowns, wide eyed stressed out stares and angry glares.

The anxious voices of the sympathetic nervous system can drive a lot of our behaviour. Especially in our competitive, modern world with an inner voice repeating things like - "I've gotta get going, I'm gonna get left behind", "By 40 so and so had achieved this, I'm gonna get more", "Get outta my way", "Get off by back".
On the inside it can feel like nervousness or excitement. If blocked it can feel like frustration. When it escalates it makes you angry, your blood boils to overcome resistance, or you feel like running away. It can also make you scatty and hyperactive, but if you focus that energy, it can boost your productivity.

From the outside it looks like a focused, determined person, disinterested in you - maybe even unaware that you've entered the room. Excessive sympathetic activation looks like somebody spiky and off-putting, 
who has you walking on eggshells. 

A posture that sympathetic energy moves us into is: a puffed up chest ready to square up to someone, with clenched fists and tightened hips.

What brings you back? When your mind is racing, meditation can be challenging. Instead, try an activity that requires focus and attention like Chess or Sudoku, or burn the stress off with exercise. Deep breathing exercises can also be very effective at resetting the nervous system, as can a good conversation and a laugh with a friend or colleague.
sympathetic nervous system
"when all you know is fight or flight, 
red flags and butterflies all feel the same." 
Cindy Cherie

The Dorsal Vagal Complex

The dorsal branch describes where we go when we just can’t cope anymore. When we give up and resign from the world. If nothing seems to work, then what's the point? As a passing mood, it's like a few clouds on an otherwise sunny day. As a way of life it is bleak, grey, numb and lacking in vibrance.

The dorsal vagal complex evolved as a defense mechanism in nature. If running or fighting are not available options some creatures "play dead" until the threat has passed. We need to know what things make us feel safe again so that, like the turtle, we can pop our heads back out of the shell.

The trials and tribulations of the modern world can erode our positivity about the future. When that happens the dorsal vagal complex becomes our go-to "safe place" and emotional patterns take root that lead to depression, withdrawal, and shutdown. If for example, the things you most cherished in childhood are denied you as an adult, you might just feel like giving up entirely. 
dorsal vagal complex withdrawal depression shutdown
On the inside it feels like you're invisible. Like you’re drifting away from a conversation where your ideas are not welcome. On a deeper level it may feel like you’ve lost faith in people. You find it hard to open up and share your innermost thoughts. It can make you feel completely alone in a crowded room.

From the outside it sounds like, “Why bother, what's the point?” “They won't want to hear from me.” It’ll look like someone lacking in motivation, stuck in a rut, unable to break out. Someone aloof, with a distant look in their eye, daydreaming and totally not present.

A posture animated by dorsal melancholy is a hunched back, slouching forward, with a droopy head and shoulders and collapsed belly.

What brings you back? Despite how stuck you feel, remember that things weren’t always that bad. We were all once joyful, effervescent children and deep down we can remember how that felt. Strengthening your relationship with nature by taking walks in the fresh air can be helpful. Our nervous system is also designed to find solace in friends and co-regulate with the tribe, so invest your time with people you can really talk to.
"We shut down to survive." 
Deb Dana

Remember

The wind changes, the river is always flowing. 

RESILIENCE is our ability to bounce back and come back home. 

Often all it takes to get back to ventral

is a good nights sleep,

a cup of cocoa,

or a good heart to heart...

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