When I started working in the field of bodywork I heard speaking about Polyvagal theory and its importance from many sources. So I tried reading Stephen Porges's book but I found it very academic and complicated. So in the article below, I try to summarize and simplify what I’ve got through reading many articles and resources on this topic.
This theory helps to understand how the nervous system limits our behavior concerning how safe or in danger we feel.
Before going deep into the Polyvagal theory we need to get a brief view of the fight-or-flight response of our nervous system.
|Sympathetic system (SNS)||Parasympathetic system (PSNS)|
|Left hemisphere.||Right hemisphere.|
|Sees everything fragmented.||He sees the whole, creates connections.|
|Reactivity: fight / flight. (survival)||Rest and digest.|
|Number skills, Math / scientific skills, Written language, Spoken language, Objectivity, Analytical, Logic, Reasoning.||Work with art and music, creativity, don't think in a Cartesian way, in an intuitive mode.|
|The Vagus nerve is part of this system.|
|Dorsal branch||Ventral branch|
|Regulates organs below the diaphragm.||Affects body functioning above the diaphragm. Controls the muscles of the face, heart, and lungs - parts of the body used to interact with others.|
|From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a much older part of the nervous system.
The roots of the dorsal vagal pathway lie with our reptilian ancestors.
|From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s the most recent addition and is unique to mammals.|
|It is instrumental in activating the “shutdown” of the body seen in cases of overwhelming trauma.||This distinctively mammalian system thus fosters what Porges calls “social engagement”.
According to Dr. Porges, social engagement, in turn, tends to “down-regulate” (calm) the sympathetic nervous system, and the fight response.
|When we experience our environment as threatening, we operate from a fight-or-flight response mode.||When we experience our environment as safe, we operate from our social engagement system.|
Dr. Stephen Porges has expanded our view of the ANS explaining the role of the vagus nerve, through its branches, in regulating the heart, face expressions, abdominal viscera, and breath.
The Polyvagal Theory provides us an understanding of three neural circuits that support different types of behavior:
|Different types of behavior|
|Safe and social mode.||Mobilized - Fear or Flight mode.||Immobilized mode.|
|Neural circuits that support this behavior|
|Parasympathetic dorsal vagal.||Sympathetic.||Parasympathetic ventral vagal.|
|The ventral branch of the vagal nerve affects the body functioning above the diaphragm.||In addition to affecting the heart and lungs, the dorsal branch affects the body functioning below the diaphragm and is involved in digestive issues.|
|When we feel comfortable and connected our ventral vagal system is online and in charge.||We sense a threat and freeze to scan the surroundings for real danger.||When we feel frozen, numb, or “not here” the dorsal vagal system has taken control.|
|We feel normal happiness, openness, peace, and curiosity about life.
Our body feels calm and grounded.
We feel anxious, afraid, or angry.
If positive emotions are present, they usually look forced.
Emotionally, it feels like dissociation, numbness, dizziness, hopelessness, shame, a sense of feeling trapped, out of the body, disconnected from the world.
We may have difficulty getting words out or feel constriction around our throat.
Our face is expressive.
We more easily understand and listen to others.
|There may be flashes of facial expressions of fear and anger, with the background of more of a still face.
All our senses focus.
|With the decreased facial expression, our eyes may look fixed and spaced out.|
|Good level of oxytocin.||We release cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to help us accomplish what we need to—get away, or fight our enemy.||Serotonin, Dopamine, Endorphin.|
|Heart rate is regulated, our
breath is full.
|In this state our heart rate speeds up, our breath is short and shallow.||Slower heart rate, Decreased blood pressure, Slower, deeper respiration.|
|To summarize what happens inside us|
|What he wants to empathize with is that social interaction behavior is neural exercise using newer mammalian structures to inhibit very primitive defensive systems.
So if we feel that we are in a safe environment will use our face, the intonation of our voice and will negotiate a relationship or maintain safety by doing that.
This is what friends and lovers do, and teachers and therapists suppose to do.
When we are in an environment perceived as threatening we enter in a fear or flight mode. And in that state, we are gonna miss other people's cues.
So you are more likely neutral faces as being aggressive. You are more likely to see fearful faces as if they are angry. So you can find difficult relationships.
So you won't be able to use people to self-regulate.
|What if we can't go away from danger? What if we are trapped in a car or a bathroom and someone is now going to hurt us. So the third circuit is triggered, and it shuts us down.
It's important to understand this to deal with traumas. Because most of the other models previous of Polyvagal Theory speak just about the Fight or Flight system.