What is Polyvagal Theory? And why should you learn about it if you're healing from trauma?
History of the Polyvagal Theory:
In 1994 the Polyvagal Theory emerged with the research developed and led by Dr. Stephen Porges. Notable professionals including Deb Dana have contributed to what we now know about the Polyvagal Theory today and how we integrate it into our work with clients.
The Polyvagal Theory helps us understand how our autonomic-nervous-system (ANS) functions by managing risks and seeking safety in all of our daily interactions with the world around us. Another way to look at this is, we unconsciously and automatically adapt to the experiences we have and how we perceive them.
Polyvagal states include:
This is where we feel safe and hopeful. Being in this state allows us to be social and resourceful. It doesn’t have to mean that we are “happy”, but we are in a state in which we feel that we can adapt and choose our responses to the cues around us.
This is that rush of adrenaline that sends us into a fight or flight response. We may experience a rush of emotions such as anger. In this state we do not feel calm nor safe.
This can be described as immobilized or collapsed. In this state it is common to experience symptoms of dissociation including: numbness, lack of motivation, depersonalization, and more.
Another way to look at this is to imagine a car…
When the car is in the “dorsal vagal state” the car has all four doors attached, all four wheels attached with just enough air, the windshield intact, the motor is on- all the basics to keep a car able to run.
If the car begins to shift into a “sympathetic state” this may appear as all the lights on the dashboard coming on, the tires beginning to empty, the AC wont work and the windows won’t go down so the temperature in the car becomes uncomfortable. When the car is in this state there is a sense of unpredictability and feeling of danger.
When the car returns to a state of “ventral vagal” all the dashboard lights are off. The car’s tires are filled to the perfect pressure, the gas tank is full, there is no rust on the exterior of the car, the drive feels smooth. Although the car may hit a pot-hole, or get caught in traffic, there is a sense that the car will continue to drive smoothly once these ‘minor disturbances’ end.
Why is all of this important?
It’s simple. If we aren’t aware of what our body needs, we cannot take care of it.
We are able to connect with and feel safe around others when we are in a ventral vagal state. In this place we are able to make new friends, ask for help, learn new information.
It is just as important to be able to recognize that slight shift which carries us into a state of fight/flight- this is our bodies alerting us that something may be wrong and allows us to search for ways to maintain safety.
If we are unable to find ways to return to a state of calmness, we may end up disconnecting ourselves and falling into a state of numbness. Feeling as if we do not have strength or control to return to a place of safety and connectedness causes us to shut down.
It is important to know that when we experience these states, they are temporary. There are resources that we can use to help us become aware as well as manage our polyvagal shifts.
Understanding our (sometimes subtle) polyvagal shifts without judgement allows us to recognize what our bodies need to return to a state of ventral vagal connection.
Your therapist can help teach ways to identify these shifts as well as tools you can use to reconnect to your ventral vagal state.
Annabella Lipson is a Mental Health Counselor
Her goal is to work collaboratively to help individuals become more aware of and in control of their relationships, behaviors and emotions.
Annabella is available for morning, afternoon and evening appointments virtually or in-person at Peaceful Living MHC