Understanding the Poly Vagal Theory
And why it is so important to our therapies at Roots To Thrive Therapy
The Polyvagal Theory describes a part of the autonomic nervous system that is primarily influenced by the central nervous system, and how together they work to respond to stimuli from both the environment and bodily organs. This theory claims that this autonomic nervous system has a standard pattern of reactivity, that is dependent upon the evolutionary need for humans to elicit defensive behaviors. This typical defensive behavior optimizes a human for health, growth and restoration. As Porges states, most vertebrates have two primary defense systems: fight or flight and immobilization. These two responses activate when a person senses danger. They send the body into a state that reduces metabolic demands and aids our primary need to survive.
The Polyvagal Theory offers specific science in understanding how the vagus nerve (a key component of the autonomic nervous system) connects the brain, the heart, and the viscera. The vagus nerve allows us to understand the social world around us, and evaluate stimuli based on varied degrees of threat or safety. Porges, the primary founder of this theory, created the term “neuroception” or how we refer unconscious awareness through the autonomic nervous system and detect danger before we even consciously process it.
He subdivides the vagal response into the “dorsal vagal” which elicits our “freeze” response, and the fight-or-flight response previously mentioned. The second division is referred to as the “ventral vagal”. This is a very evolved and complex reactionary system that regulates our response to social communication and engagement. This system dictates the response system of our heart rate, breath, hearing, facial muscle movements, and vocalizations. In typical situations, each of these systems work in concert.
When a safe environment is detected we are comfortable and the ventral dorsal system elicits a calm heart rate, and breathing pattern. This allows us to produce and filter voice patterns and breathe at a healthy rate. When we detect a not so safe environment, our dorsal vagal response engages, and we naturally respond in defense producing the survival mode behaviors. We are left with an injured ability to perceive social stimuli and relate to those around us when this is activated. When a person has experienced repeated trauma, their body is conditioned to detect and elicit this type of response. This can lead to response behaviors that may not align with the reality of the stimuli. A person may perceive an interaction or situation as dangerous, when it may not be.
When this pattern is recognized it can help us understand that behaviors are sometimes unconsciously directed by our nervous system in order to aid in our survival. When we understand the social connection to our nervous system response, we can work to regulate this response and give strategy to retraining the system.
The Polyvagal Theory then focuses on neural exercises that provide opportunity to optimize the regulation of our physiological state. It does this through employing cues of safety in social interaction and employs a pattern of disrupting the autonomic state, and then stabilizing it with the support of the therapist. Therefore, therapy becomes a “platform” to exercise the autonomic system out of prolonged states of defense. When a client can experience reliable co-regulation with a therapist, triggers of defense are hopefully reduced, and better self-regulation will properly emerge. At Roots to Thrive, it is the goal for us to reach a co-regulated point of connection, and create a space where better self-regulation strategies can be achieved.
Contact us today to learn how we can help your child and family learn self-regulation and co-regulation strategies. Roots To Thrive Therapy, Charleston, SC
Chapter 4 from Porges SW & Dana D (2018). Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies. New York: WW Norton.