The polyvagal theory is named for ‘polus’ meaning many, and ‘vagus’ the nerve which runs throughout the human body. It is a tool for working with trauma and social connection based on how our nervous system reacts to external stimuli varying from safety to danger. Tony Buckley, an expert on the topic, spoke to us about Polyvagal Theory and how it can be used in counselling and psychotherapy.
Safety and social connectedness
The polyvagal theory is all about safety (and how the vagus nerve reacts to it). It is therefore all about connectedness, as when we feel safe we feel attached to others. The theory therefore linked the idea of social connectedness as a response to an form of recovery from trauma.
Neuroception is a term coined by Stephen Porges, the creator of The Polyvagal Theory, and it refers to the detection of safety or danger we all do constantly without being consciously aware of it. It is that sense of intuition which warns us that someone around us is readying themselves to cause trouble or to hurt us. It is, however, possible for people to have a faulty sense of neuroception where you detect danger where there is none. This is often a response to trauma which sets all of our senses on high alert.
Calming the nervous system
But if your alert systems are set to high, how do we reset them? As it’s a bodily system, we cannot use our mind to switch it off (this is why logic doesn’t work whilst we are panicking). So instead we need to use our bodies.
The body is controlled by two systems – the cranial nerve (controlling our 5 senses) and the vagus nerve which controls the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Therefore in order to control our physical reactions, we need to understand how to affect our vagus nerve. We therefore need to calm our bodies. We can do this through grounding exercises, breathing, listening to music we find soothing, shaking off the stress etc. We are all different and so will need to experiment with what specifically works for us.
The Window of Affective Tolerance
The window of tolerance is a brilliant way of understanding hyper and hypo arousal as experienced in times of distress.
Whilst we remain in ‘optimum arousal’ we can function normally, but if we become ‘hyper-aroused’ which is designed to make us mobilised for action, we might instead experience panic. This state is associated with fight and flight responses to trauma. At the opposite end of the spectrum we might find ourselves in ‘hypo-arousal’ which can numb us to external experiences but also can cause us to completely shut down as per the flop and freeze responses to trauma.
Vagus Nerve Systems
The vagus nerve covers three systems within the body which are associated with, and respond to different levels of threat.
Safety – social engagement system
This picks up signals from others from body language, facial expression and tone of voice and (if those signals are friendly) calms us. This system can override stress hormones that other people trigger in us.
Danger – sympathetic nervous system
Activating the fight or flight response by increasing muscle blood flow and tension, dilating pupils, accelerating heart rate and respiration, and increasing perspiration and arterial blood pressure
Life Threat – parasympathetic nervous system
Also known as the rest and digest system, as in times of life threat it will conserve energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. This is best seen in the opossum which plays dead so convincingly that its prey will walk away, leaving it to escape when the coast is clear.
The vagal paradox is that some systems which can be shut down for survival can also kill us if pushed too far!
Immobilisation can be healthy (rest and repair), or for survival (feigned death). Mobilisation similarly has the same two sides of adrenalised fun (such as rollercoasters), or action against danger. However our body responds to trauma, the fact that it is doing anything at all is positive – the body is doing its best to keep us safe at all times.
Understanding the polyvagal system in therapy
In therapy, we can use this knowledge of the polyvagal system by utilising the social engagement system. As therapy is based on a therapeutic relationship, we can use this to help the client to recover from trauma by providing a safe ‘other’ which the clients social engagement system can sense and react to. Once the client feels safe with us we can then help them to work through the trauma, as well as to find other ‘safe’ people in their lives to spread the calm outside of the therapy room.