Understanding Polyvagal theory helps us befriend our Autonomic Nervous System
Created by Stephen Porges, Polyvagal theory explains the different ways our autonomic nervous system (ANS) guides our moment by moment engagement with the world. Our ANS acts as our “personal body guard”, constantly surveying our environment in order to keep us safe. Its primary goal of protection is achieved via automatically scanning for safety and threat. Attuning to environmental cues of safety and danger without conscious control is called neuroception.
Polyvagal theory offers an empowering road map for working with our nervous systems
The 3 parts of our ANS nervous system can be imagined as 3 embryologic rungs on a ladder. In our daily lives, we frequently move down and up this ladder in response to the world, predictably following an inherent order of movement from one rung to the other.
The ladder analogy also helps to understand the evolutionary development of our ANS
The lowest rung on the ladder and most primitive part of our nervous system is the dorsal vagal system (DV), which allows us to engage with the world in a slow and deliberate way. The DV system, for example, runs our digestive system. During a survival response, the DV system is the path of last resort. When all else fails, it responds to cues of extreme danger by taking us out of connection and into a protective state of collapse or disassociation. When we feel frozen, numb or “spaced out”, the DV system has taken control. We may also feel foggy, empty, hopeless, exhausted or alone. Remaining in the DV state for longer periods of time can lead to problems with isolation, depression, memory, chronic fatigue, weight gain, or low blood pressure.
The next rung up of the nervous system ladder is the sympathetic system (SNS), which engages heart, breath, motor and temperature control. This part of the ANS evolved after the DV system. We shift to this state when we feel a sense of unease. In a survival situation, the SNS recruits the “flight or fight” phenomenon, mobilizing us to take vigorous action toward safety. We may notice our breath has quickened or become more shallow, our heart rate has increased or we become more vigilant. We may feel anxious, angry or energized. Some of the tangible impacts of chronically dwelling in this state include experiencing panic attacks, relationship distress, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleeping difficulties, muscle tension, stomach problems and diminished immune status.
The newest and highest tier of the evolutionary nervous system hierarchy is the ventral vagal (VV) system, which encourages us to communicate and engage with others to feel safe. It is no surprise that this system recruits the muscles of our neck, face, eyes, ears and voice. The VV system responds to cues of safety and fosters social connection, promoting relationship to both our inner world and our environment. When we are in this state, our breath and heart rate are regulated, we are interested in people’s faces and words, and we experience the world as a safe place. While the VV state is not a panacea of peace and harmony without problems, existing in this state allows us to recognize distress, explore options, ask for support and create intentional responses. Within the VV realm, we are receptive, open and interested in others, enjoy being productive, and also take time to play and relax. Some of the tangible benefits of existing in this state include a healthy immune system, regulated blood pressure, a healthy heart, and feelings of well-being.
Understanding this ladder can help explain why we behave the way we do
There is convenience to a hierarchy; it’s easy to understand the predictable order.
How does the ANS impact our daily lives?
We are born into this world wired for connection--it is an inherent longing. We seek a VV resting place that is calm and centered. When we meet a life challenge that is too much for our VV system to handle, we will need to take a step down the ladder and recruit our mobilizing SNS. If that strategy doesn’t resolve the challenge, our nervous system takes us into a DV form of retreat- the lowest rung on the ladder, in service to our need for safety. In order to return to a VV state, we first must mobilize our energy system through the SNS to travel back up the ladder. Eventually, we can return to a VV state as we discharge some of the SNS energy.
Why is it helpful to understand the three different Polyvagal energy states?
We can become active operators of our nervous systems as we remove the mystery from what is happening to us. When we take the management back, we become the authors of our own autonomic story rather than just passive listeners.
While all of our three different nervous system states are present all the time, we typically have a foreground and a background state.
If the foreground state is ventral (VV), we will feel loving, safe and connected. With enough VV energy in the foreground, we can notice and reflect on our background DV and SNS impulses. Having enough VV energy in our system allows us to navigate differently than our “flight or fight” or “immobilization” states might typically dictate. As long as our VV state is “in charge”, we feel grounded and calm. If our DV or SNS states enter the foreground, we can learn what is necessary to return to our VV state. This flexibility and maneuverability is very empowering. We become more intentional narrators our own ANS story.
Polyvagal theory also helps us to understand the importance of relationship for a healthy nervous system.
Learning skills of self-regulation to nourish our nervous systems is only part of the healthy nervous system equation.
As relational beings, humans need and long to be in connection with another nervous system.
Relational engagement-attuning to and being attuned by- is another powerful tool to co-regulate our nervous states. Indeed, for a healthy nervous system, we need a balance of self and other (self-regulation and co-regulation).
As babies, we are profoundly dependent on others for our survival. Without connection to another human, we will perish. Baby humans must first learn to co-regulate with our caregivers before learning to self-regulate. For many of us, adequate co-regulation was not present and we were forced to self-regulate as a survival response. Perhaps we have since became dependent on self-regulation and haven't yet internalized the benefits of co-regulation.
Our nervous system is a story teller.
The ANS fuels our story based on our nervous system state.
As our neuroception (unconscious attuning to environmental cues of safety and danger) is delivered to our brain, our brain strives to make sense of the world through our varying states. Perhaps we feel our stomach tighten in response to a comment made by our partner, coworker or parent. This information is filtered through our cortex, and we make up a story about our environment and "who we are in the world" based on this neuroception.
Polyvagal-informed work is to bring awareness to the ANA as the originating point in our story creation.
Each different ANS state has emergent properties and holds a unique and predictable narrative.
The story embedded in the SNS is one of danger, where the thirst for social engagement dries up. The SNS narrative is about being unsafe in the world, where perhaps everyone becomes the enemy, where one must be “better than”. This story is not about connection. The emergent properties in SNS are flight-or-flight, anxiety and worry.
In the DV state, the story is about disappearing, feeling untethered or abandoned. A DV-influenced dialogue may say, “If the world is unsafe, then I won’t be in it.” Those in the midst of a dorsal state may feel as if they no longer exist, are unconnected or don’t matter. The emergent properties in the DV state are collapse, retreat, and dissociation.
The narrative within the VV state is one of hope, possibility and the value of connection to Self and others.
One way to change our story is to change our state.
Gayle Waitches and Illumination Counseling offer Polyvagal-informed therapy to individuals and couples in Southeast Portland, Oregon.