What is Polyvagal Theory Practice and Why Regulation of the Nervous System is Crucial?

What is Polyvagal Theory Practice and Why Regulation of the Nervous System is Crucial?

Everyday living is a complex experience of autonomic nervous system. Polyvagal Theory developed by dr. Stephen Porges  explains how and why trauma clients move through a continuous cycle of mobilization, disconnection and teach how they can move back to regulation, safety and engagement. 

Trauma, which might be thought of as “what happens to a person where there is either too much too soon, too much for too long, or not enough for too long”, creates an autonomic demand that shapes the system away from connection toward protection. The autonomic nervous system responds moment to moment to what are often competing needs to survive and to be social. In a state of protection, survival is the only goal. The system is closed to connection and change. In a state of connection, health, growth, and restoration are possible. Polyvagal Theory therapists are working exactly on co-regulation of your nervous system so client can restore sense of safety and stability in the client body and mind. 

The greatest thing then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally as opposed to our enemy.

William James

When family dynamics are based in experiences of autonomic misattunement, there is little chance for experiences of repair. When the adults in a family carry their own patterns of dysregulation, habitually triggered into states of protection and unable to return to regu- lation and offer the safety of connection, the child’s autonomic nervous system responds by creating its own patterns of pro- tection. “Without the experience of an organizing other, the nervous system is stunned” (Fisher, 2014). Without interven- tion, a legacy of dysregulated autonomic organization is passed from one generation to the next.

Trauma survivors often suffer from unpredictable, rapid, intense, and prolonged states of dysregulation. This auto- nomic imbalance and lack of flexibility leads to health prob- lems. Physical problems include impaired immune function, digestive problems, respiratory problems, diabetes, increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and chronic fatigue, etc.

In addition to physiology, psychology is impacted. Social isolation and loneliness, a vigilance for angry faces, distraction from tasks, inability to discern meaningful cues from trivial ones, and increased depression and anxiety are some of the consequences of an out-of-balance autonomic nervous system.

The hopeful news for people living with PTSD and trauma is that since the autonomic nervous system learns from experience, ongoing experiences can reshape the system. Habitual response patterns can be interrupted and new patterns can be created. Autonomic flexibility is a hard-won outcome of therapy as clients discover their autonomic vulnerabilities and together look toward resourcing autonomic resilience.

In Polyvagal Theory informed practice we are regulating dorsal vagal and sympathetic nervous system and activating ventral vagal part of your nervous system. 

Think about dorsal vagal state as state where you feel numb, without energy,  state of freeze. Sympathetic state is a state of flight or fight. State where we feel anger, rage, or we are always people pleasing and accommodating others without seeing our needs and our boundaries. And ventral vagal state is a state of safety, connection, clarity and purpose. 

The ability to return to regulation is the essence of resilience and this is what you will learn in a sessions. When you establish and resource pathways to ventral vagal regulation, you recover your innate abilities for resilience. The ventral vagus connects with the heart’s pacemaker—the sinoatrial node—that regulates the rhythms of the heart. This pathway has been named the vagal brake because it describes the actions of the ventral vagus to slow down or speed up the heart, supporting a flexible response to the challenges of every- day living. A well-functioning vagal brake brings the ability to rapidly engage and disengage, energize and calm, and experience ease in making these transitions. With a flexible vagal brake, you can reflect and respond rather than react.

Resources: Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices Copyright © 2020 by Deb Dana, Dr. Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory, Grippo, Lamb, Carter, & Porges

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