Polyvagal Theory (PVT) is often referred to as the science of safety, in which your wholebody learns to feel safe enough to experience life joyfully, willing to take the risks of living a rich, nourished, fulfilled life.
PVT, as researched and made available through the work of Stephen Porges, provides a physiological and psychological framework for understanding how your experiences move you through continuous cycles of mobilisation, disconnection and engagement. It is based on the role of your autonomic nervous system in shaping your understanding of safety in the world and your ability to connect with others.
Meet your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be thought of as your personal surveillance system. It asks “Is this safe?” responding to perceived challenges in your daily life by telling you how you are.
The ANS’s goal is to protect you by sensing safety and risk, listening moment by moment to what is happening in and around your body and in the connections you have with others. The listening happens far below awareness and far away from your conscious control. Dr Porges coined the term neuroception to describe the way your ANS scans the environment for cues of safety and threat without involving your conscious brain.
Your ANS manages risks or perceived threats and creates patterns of connection with yourself and other people (or animals) by changing your physiological state. The change in your physiology is a signal, via your body to react to different situations in appropriate ways.
The shifts in physiological state produced by the ANS are often slight or subtle, and are designed to allow you to move in and out from calm, to alarm, returning to calm, throughout the varied experiences of your day.
The ANS is an interconnected security system, which evolved for survival in humans over hundreds of thousands of years. Even though the ANS is working behind the scenes, the human brain likes to find ways to make meaning from situations. That which begins as the wordless experiencing of neuroception can often drive the creation of an internal story that shapes the way you live every day.
An evolutionary example of your ANS in action
Imagine your hunter gatherer ancestor who lived in a wild environment. She is on her way to collect drinking water from a nearby stream and hears a twig break in the bushes behind. The quickening heart rate, heightened state of alertness, restriction on her breathing and sharpened visual senses are physiological responses to the fact that there may be a large predator animal nearby.
In an instant, your ancestor weighs her options – will it be more beneficial to run fast, climb up a tree, crouch below a branch, or stand and fight? Previous experiences of running into large animals will determine part of her current response. If her mother was eaten by a tiger, her response may be different than if she has previously successfully hunted and killed these animals herself.
In the very next moment her sister steps out of the forest calling “wait for me.” Your ancestor realises the sound of the cracking twig was other family members catching up to join her water-collecting trip. Your ancestor’s heart rate slows, her breath returns to normal and she begins to move along the path with friends in tow. She has returned to regulation and continues with her day.
What does a resilient ANS look like?
A resilient ANS can respond to large shifts easily, returning from an alerted state, to regulation. In the previous example, your ancestor’s ANS was well tuned and able to shift in and out of regulation, based on the cues in her environment.
Trauma interrupts the process of building and maintaining ANS circuitry of safe connection and can sidetrack the development of regulation and resilience. Clients with trauma histories often experience more intense, extreme autonomic responses, which affects their ability to regulate with others, feel safe in relationships and form positive bonds.
Hollie teaches people to understand behaviours as autonomic actions in service to survival. Throughout your life you have developed adaptive responses that are ingrained in a survival story that is now entered into automatically.
Survival and Patterns of Protection
Trauma compromises your ability to engage with others by replacing the patterns of connection with patterns of protection. If unresolved, these early adaptive responses (which at the time were needed for survival) become habitual automatic patterns.
Polyvagal Informed Therapy supports clients to re-pattern the ways your autonomic nervous system operates when the drive for survival competes with the ability to connect with others.
In our previous example above, if your ancestor had experienced fearful tiger chases previously, or had watched a family member eaten – she may have had a different response in the instant of hearing the twig snap. In this case it may be more difficult to return to the calm state, regulated heart rate and breathing, to continue on with her day.
You are adaptable : Reshaping your ANS via Polyvagal Informed Therapy
In each of your relationships your ANS is learning about the world and selecting either for habits of connection, or protection. Earlier experiences may have shaped automatic behavioural patterns, and the good news is that adult relationships and ongoing experiences can continue to heal and shape your ANS.
Just as your brain has the ability to continually change in response to experiences, and your epigenetic expression will adapt in response to your environment, your ANS is also malleable to intentional influence.
With each positive contact and co-regulative experience, your ANS is given a moment of resonance, attunement and connection. Signals of safety can be learned and practiced to help you feel more comfortable in the world. Over time, you will develop resilience and tone in your autonomic responses, and have more joy in your life.
Three organising principles at the heart of Polyvagal Theory
- Hierarchy : The autonomic nervous system responds to sensations in the body and signals from the environment through three pathways of response. These pathways work in a specified order and respond to challenges in predictable ways. The three pathways (and their patterns of response) in evolutionary order form oldest to newest, are the dorsal vagus (immobilisation), the sympathetic nervous system (mobilisation), and the ventral vagus (social engagement and connection).
- Neuroception : describes the ways our autonomic nervous system responds to cues of safety, danger, and life threat from within your body, in the world around you, and in your connections to others. Different from perception, this is detection without awareness, a subcortical experience happening far below the realm of conscious thought.
- Co-regulation : PVT identifies co-regulation as a biological imperative: a need that must be met to sustain life. It is through reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states that we feel safe to move into connection and create trusting relationships.
The role of Social Engagement
The Social Engagement System (SES) is our face-heart connection, created from the linking of the vagus nerve with the muscles in your face and head that control how you look (facial expressions), how you listen (auditory), and how you speak (vocalisation). It is through your interactions with other people that the SES sends and receives messages of safety.
Humans stay in a state of evaluation until we feel safe. In other words, when your SES does not receive signals of safety and security, via body language, smiles, kind words etc., your ANS will be in a state of chronic surveillance. When not safe, your physiology signals the need for protection. Survival dictates that protection must occur for as long as it takes until you feel safe again.
Trauma disregulates the ANS and SES so that clients can be in states of protection and surveillance more often. An unkind word or a confusing glance can be enough to trigger a protection response in an individual. When in a protective state, you are disregulated from your own cues for safety and it can become even more difficult to read signals from others effectively.
What makes Polyvagal Informed Therapy special?
The goal of Polyvagal Informed Therapy is to engage the resources of the system of connection, via your ANS, to recruit the circuits that support the social behaviours of the SES. Clients learn to engage the safe systems of connection more often, establishing clear pathways for regulation through co-regulation (connection with the therapist).
In Polyvagal Informed Therapy, a therapist will create the conditions for a physiological state that supports an actively engaged SES. Clients learn safe connection, via education, curiosity and exercises for change.
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Learn more about Polyvagal Theory
Understanding the basis of PVT can help you understand your own behaviours and responses, and is often the first step in autonomic nervous system healing.
The article Meet your Autonomic Nervous System was published by Hollie Bakerboljkovac, for the Institute for Self Crafting.
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