A few weeks ago I did some training on the polyvagal theory. I had never heard of it before the beginning of this year but have heard it mentioned often over the last few months. I was told it was particularly useful for those who had suffered trauma, PTSD, and for those who suffer from stress anxiety. It is also very useful if you are someone who has autism, in fact, this is where I had originally heard about the polyvagal theory, when, earlier this year I attended a CPD course on how to support those with autism who have suffered a bereavement.
The polyvagal theory identifies a third type of nervous system response that Porges (who invented polyvagal theory), calls the social engagement system, a playful mixture of activation and calming that operates out of unique nerve influence. The social engagement system helps us navigate relationships.
Not only does the body remember a traumatic experience, but it can actually get stuck in the trauma response mode. We like to think of our emotions as ethereal, complex, and difficult to categorize and identify.
The truth is that emotions are responses to a stimulus (internal or external). Often they happen out of our awareness, especially if we are out of touch, or incongruent, with our inner emotional life.
Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive. That’s where polyvagal theory comes in to play.
The nervous system is always running in the background, controlling our body functions so we can think about other things—like what kind of ice cream we’d like to order, or how to get that A in school. The entire nervous system works in tandem with the brain, and can take over our emotional experience, even if we don’t want it to.
During non-stressful situations, if we are emotionally healthy, our bodies stay in a social engagement state, or a happy, normal, non-freak-out state.
I like to call it “connection.” By connection, I mean that we are capable of a “connected” interaction with another human being. We are walking around, unafraid, enjoying our day, eating with friends and family and our body and emotions feel normal.
It’s also called ventral vagal response, because that’s the part of the brain that is activated during connection mode. It’s like a green light for normal life.
The sympathetic nervous system is our immediate reaction to stress that affects nearly every organ in the body.
The sympathetic nervous system causes that “fight or flight” state we have all heard of. It gives us those cues so that it can keep us alive.
In fight or flight, at some level we believe we can still survive whatever threat we think is dangerous.
What’s interesting about this part of the parasympathetic nervous system? Its function is to keep us frozen as an adaptive mechanism to help us survive to either fight or flight again.
When our sympathetic nervous system has kicked into overdrive, and we still can’t escape and feel impending death the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system takes control.
It causes freezing or shutdown, as a form of self preservation. (Think of someone who passes out under extreme stress.)
No matter what the cause was, our brain believed what was happening was life threatening enough that it caused our body to go into fight, flight, or shutdown mode.
If someone has been through such a traumatic event that their body tips into shutdown response, any event that reminds the person of that life-threatening occurrence can trigger them into disconnection or dissociation again.
People can even live in a state of disconnection or shutdown for days or months at a time.
Veterans often experience this during loud, sudden noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms. A woman who was raped might quickly switch into hypervigilant or dissociated response if she feels someone is following her. Someone who was abused might be triggered when even another person starts yelling.
The problem occurs when we haven’t processed the original trauma in such a way that the original trauma is resolved.
When we understand why our body reacts the way it does, like a string of clues and some basic science about the brain, we can understand how to switch states. We can begin to move out of the fight or flight state, out of the shutdown mode, and back into the social engagement state.
Knowing how to navigate the polyvagal states is important in dealing with those deep traumatic memories.
If any of this has resonated with you and you feel you would benefit from some counselling please feel free to contact me.