The Polyvagal Model of the Mind
"The polyvagal theory shows us that our nervous system is not just a mechanical system that responds to external stimuli, but a dynamic system that is shaped by our experiences and interactions with the world." - Dr. Deb Dana, author of "The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy."
The polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges in the late 1990s, is a model that explains how our nervous system responds to stress and social interactions. According to the theory, the nervous system has three branches, each with its own unique response to stress: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the ventral vagal complex (VVC).
The SNS is responsible for our "fight or flight" response, which prepares us for danger by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.The PNS, on the other hand, helps us rest and digest by slowing down heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The VVC is a newer part of the nervous system that evolved in mammals and is responsible for our social engagement behaviors, such as facial expressions and vocalizations.
According to the polyvagal theory, our nervous system responds to stress in a hierarchical manner. If we perceive a threat, our SNS is activated first to help us fight or flee. If the threat continues, the PNS is activated to help us conserve energy and rest. If the threat persists or if we feel safe enough to engage socially, the VVC is activated to help us communicate and connect with others.
What's interesting about the polyvagal theory is that it suggests that our social interactions are intimately linked with our physiological responses to stress. When we feel safe and connected with others, our VVC is activated, leading to feelings of calm and relaxation. On the other hand, when we feel threatened or disconnected, our SNS is activated, leading to feelings of anxiety and stress.
Overall, the polyvagal theory provides a new way of understanding our nervous system's responses to stress and social interactions, highlighting the importance of social engagement in promoting feelings of safety and calm. The theory has been influential in a range of fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and trauma therapy.
Applying it to yourself
The polyvagal theory can be applied to yourself by helping you better understand and manage your nervous system's responses to stress and social interactions. Here are some examples and tools or techniques that you can use according to the theory:
Recognize your body's cues: Start by paying attention to the physical sensations in your body when you're feeling stressed or anxious. Notice how your heart rate and breathing change, how your muscles tense up, and how your stomach feels. These are all signs that your SNS is activated. By recognizing these cues, you can start to take steps to calm your nervous system. It begins with awareness of your body.
Practice deep breathing: One effective way to activate your PNS is to practice deep breathing. Slowly inhale through your nose, filling your lungs, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, focusing on relaxing your body. Repeat this several times, focusing on your breath and letting go of any tension or stress. Continue it until you notice a shift in the tension in your body.
Connect with others you feel safe around: As mentioned before, our VVC is activated when we feel safe and connected with others. This means that social support is crucial for managing stress and anxiety. Reach out to friends or family members, join a social group, or participate in activities that bring you joy and connection.
Ground yourself in the present moment: When you're feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to ground yourself in the present moment. This means focusing on your senses and your environment, such as feeling your feet on the ground, noticing the sounds around you, or taking in the scenery. This can help shift your attention away from the stress and activate your PNS.
Practice self-compassion: Finally, it's important to practice self-compassion when you're struggling with stress or anxiety. Recognize that your nervous system is doing its best to protect you, and that you have the power to help it feel safe and calm. Be gentle with yourself, and don't judge yourself harshly for experiencing stress or anxiety.
Questions for Self-Inquiry
If you want to examine the role of the polyvagal theory in your life, here's a list of questions you can begin with:
- What are my physical sensations and emotions in different social and physiological contexts?
- How do my physiological responses to different situations affect my behavior?
- How do I react to perceived safety or danger, and how does this impact my behavior and emotions?
- How do my past experiences and trauma influence my current physiological and emotional responses to different situations?
- How do I differentiate between feeling safe, socially connected, and threat-evoking situations and how do they affect my physiological and emotional responses?
- How can I cultivate a sense of safety, social connection, and resilience?
Important People in the Polyvagal Model
Some notable figures in the field include:
- Bessel van der Kolk, who is a leading expert on trauma and its effects on the body and the brain. He is the author of The Body Keeps the Score, which is one of the best books in existence when it comes to understanding the influence of trauma on our lives, and how to heal from trauma.
- Peter Levine, who is the founder of the Somatic Experiencing method, which is a trauma-focused therapy that is based on the polyvagal theory.
- Deb Dana, who is a clinical social worker and the author of several books on the polyvagal theory, including "The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy."
- Pat Ogden, who is a psychotherapist and the co-founder of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, which trains therapists in the use of the polyvagal theory in practice. He is also the author of "Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment."