Polyvagal Theory: The key to trauma treatment
By Gina Cipriano
Many people wonder why they continue to react certain ways despite recognizing that it may not always be “rational.” People can feel confused, frustrated, and ashamed of responses they have that they do not necessarily understand. An explanation of this may come from the Polyvagal Theory. A commonly overlooked factor of mental health entails the biological underpinnings that explain humans’ behaviors. While peoples’ perceptions play a role into their behaviors, it fails to consider what automatic responses may be occurring within a person’s body and can leave people feeling misunderstood. The Polyvagal Theory is used to describe that humans’ behaviors are, in part, due to evolutionary factors. Further, it describes the importance of understanding the parasympathetic and sympathetic parts of the nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system includes something called the dorsal vagus which is a vagal pathway that will shut down parts of the body, that take up energy, and cause a person to “freeze” (McKeever, 2022), This can be seen when a lizard pretends to “play dead” so that a predator will stop attacking them (Porges & Dana, 2018). Many people who are enduring a traumatic situation feel as though they become numb or cannot move, which is due to the dorsal vagus being activated. During this time, a person may dissociate which occurs when they feel as though they are disconnected from their reality; it is what helps people survive. The next part to evolve was mammals’ sympathetic nervous system (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). This nervous system is what activates people to either run from perceived danger or fight back (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). When this is activated, adrenaline is increased while functions that are unnecessary for a person’s protection, such as digestion, are decreased (Porges & Dana, 2018). The most recent vagal pathway that developed is called the ventral vagal pathway, which is what separates mammals from reptiles (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). Ultimately, the ventral vagal pathway connects to the brain to allow for people to register social cues. This is what allows people to regulate their nervous system and engage in connecting with others (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018).
From an evolutionary perspective, mammals are social creatures, unlike their reptilian ancestors. Social connection is what separates humans from reptiles. The polyvagal theory proposes that the systems discussed above are hierarchical in nature (McKeever, 2022). This means that if a person’s dorsal vagal (shutdown) system becomes activated, they must pass through the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), to finally activate the ventral vagal pathway and remain safe (McKeever, 2022).
Neuroception explains that peoples’ bodies are wired to protect us, but the bodies automatic system may misinterpret a safe situation as dangerous (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). Even if people logically recognize they are safe, their bodies may begin to react as if it was not by activating their freeze, fight, or flight responses (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). For people who have endured a traumatic situation, their body may respond to situations as if their trauma was re-occurring. In order to assist people in regulating their nervous systems, polyvagal informed therapists provide their clients with a safe space to move through the hierarchy. This allows clients to begin to activate the ventral vagal pathway (social pathway). Further, people can use regulation strategies such as breathing, focusing on their five senses, taking a walk, and coloring to assist them in moving towards activating the ventral vagal pathway.
McKeever, N. (2022, April 15). Polyvagal theory: A very simple introduction. https://niallmckeever.com/polyvagal-theory-simple-introduction/
Porges, S. W., & Dana, D. A. (2018). Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory – the emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. WW Norton.
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