Hello, friends! Welcome! I hope you’re well and taking good care of yourself by tuning into your body and giving it whatever it needs.
Today’s title may sound scary but it’s something I’m adventuring into learning more about and it feels appropriate to share. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been working through a class by Bessel Van der Kolk (expert in treating trauma) and one of the “bonus” lectures was about Polyvagal theory. Interestingly, this was not my first run-in with polyvagal. When I was working with my own therapist, she used polyvagal theory to help me with some anxiety and depression symptoms.
So what in the world is polyvagal theory? Poly- means many and vagal refers to the vagus nerves which run from the body to the brain. According to this theory, the vagus nerve has two branches.
One branch is more “ancient”. It develops before birth and connects your “guts” and heart to the brain to help regulate things that happen below our awareness (like heart rhythm and digestion). This is where things get a little more complicated and I’ll try to explain it as best I can. When this branch of the vagus comes online and gets activated (only one branch can be active at a time), it immobilizes us. It shuts us down. In small mammals, it causes them to feign death. If you’ve ever seen a possum “play possum”- it’s the older (technically called the dorsal vagal) vagus branch turning on. It is not voluntary and it’s basically the body saying “I’m likely not going to survive anyway; my best shot at survival is to conserve energy and try to be invisible”. Many times we see victims of trauma who are ashamed or confused because their bodies just shut down and they felt frozen rather than fighting, running, helping. This is because of the dorsal vagal branch of the vagus nerve.
The other branch is much “newer”. It’s myelinated (covered in a sheath of fat so that electrical signals flow more smoothly and are less chaotic) where the dorsal vagal section is not. It connects the lungs and facial muscles to the brain which is super important. It has two functions: it’s either in resting and connecting (to each other in a healthy way, feeling safe and growing) or it’s in fight or flight. Here’s another important thing to remember; your body prefers to activate fight or flight rather than shut down and if your body is in fight or flight, it cannot go to shut down. That’s why sometimes when you’re really upset, you feel the need to do something. Sometimes we’re not even sure what but we want to run, move, punch, just go. Your body is trying to protect you from shutting down!
I think it’s fairly easy to tease out why the ventral vagal connection to our lungs is important but why is its connection to our facial muscles important? Those facial muscles are very important in our connection to each other. A relaxed forehead with some smile lines near the eyes tells others that we’re friendly and trustworthy. As human beings, we use each other to co-regulate. That means that if we’re looking at someone who is relaxed, we’re more likely to relax and be ready to connect and share. It helps inform our brain that we’re safe.
And honestly, that’s what the polyvagal theory is all about; feeling safe. It’s about your body doing its best to keep you safe and telling you very loudly when it’s not safe. Either you go ventral and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, your muscles tense up, your face becomes wrinkled or you go dorsal and feel shut down, maybe with an irregular heartbeat and some stomach distress.
So there are a few practical applications we can take away from polyvagal theory. One is that we don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed when our bodies freeze up under stress- it’s a natural response from the body trying to defend you and keep you safe. Likewise, it explains some pretty harmful symptoms. So many people blame themselves for not being able to “get motivated” when, in fact, they might just be in shut down (dorsal vagal). Depression feels like “the big shutdown” sometimes. I cannot force myself to care enough to get up on some mornings. Maybe that day I’m waking up already in the dorsal vagal. This can also tell us what our body needs. If I’m in the dorsal vagal, I need to connect. I might lie on the floor and squish the carpet between my fingers. Or, I might need bigger stimulation, so I’ll stand up and sit down a few times and see what I can notice in my body. If I’m in fight-or-flight, I need to cool down and will probably change my breathing or I might push against something so that my body feels that I’m moving and working, but in a safe way.
Another important lesson from polyvagal theory is that when people are either shut down or in fight-or-flight, the vagus nerve is sending messages to their brain that it’s not safe and they only need to access survival parts of their brains. They will not look friendly and are not able to grow, learn, and remember well. Those parts of the brain are reserved for when we’re resting and connecting. For someone who has a trauma history and spends a lot of time either in fight-or-flight or shutdown, there’s a good chance they’re not functioning well because memory, connection to others, and other parts of their brain aren’t online.
Lastly, the vagus nerve’s connections are both from body to brain and brain to body but there are significantly more (think 80%) connections from the body to the brain which means that our attempts to regulate our state (shutdown, relaxed and connected, or fight-or-flight) should be mainly body based as we’re dealing with the part of brain that deals with instinct, not intellect. Telling ourselves “it’ll all be okay” is sometimes not helpful at all for this exact reason. Your brain is not in the “mood” for reason, it’s running on a primal fear.
- When you feel totally shut down, it’s not that you’re lazy or bad, your body is trying to protect you
- When we’re in shutdown or fight-or-flight, the best way to get back to calm and connected is through the body.
I have many clients who look at me like I have a third eye when I suggest breathing as the best technique for coping but Dr. Van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, says its one of the best ways to regulate this system because it changes the movement of the diaphragm which mimics the relaxed state of this system. So don’t laugh it off when your therapist suggests it.
I know this has been a more scholarly read than I usually post but knowing more about your brain can be really empowering and helpful in getting it to work with you rather than against you. If you want to learn more, the book Polyvagal Theory in Therapy is phenomenal and Dr. Porges has been instrumental in studying the vagus nerve and developing the Polyvagal Theory. I’m leaving you today with lots of love and wishes for a fantastic week.
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.