The polyvagal theory enabled experts to study mental health problems and dysfunctional social interactive behaviours from the lens of studying the nervous system. This theory explains neurophysiological foundations of 4 essential elements that governs basic human behaviour towards each other that helps us build relationships. The 4 elements are
i. Emotions– primary instinctual messengers that influence mood, temperament and motivation
ii. Attachments– a deep emotional bond
iii. Communication– way of interacting with each other
iv. Self-Regulation– way to self sooth our bodies after getting stressed
This is the ground breaking new age scientifically designed explanation that bridges the gap between very common behavioural or dysfunctional issues in human beings and the logics behind understanding the old-age solutions.
The polyvagal theory is another possible modern science theory to explain common sensical curiosity behind basic questions, such as-
· Why controlled parenting leads to perfectionist personalities
· Why childhood neglect leads to avoidant attachment styles
· why new age dating patterns have a lot of insecurity and trust issues
· Why syndromes like migraines, IBS comes in category of psycho-somatic and still there is no permanent cure for it
· Why anxious people always feel restless and fatigued
· Why depressed mood also makes you feel dissociated from daily pleasures of routine life
· Why age-old yoga, morning exercises and meditation promotes the message of calming the inner being or psychic being
The answer to all these possible questions lies in Polyvagal theory that teaches us the science of nervous system and its role in developing our personality traits as –
Insecure and Unsafe
(SNS - Fight/Flight
Dorsal Vagal state of PSNS - Freeze)
Secure and Safe
(Ventral Vagal state of PSNS)
Responds or communicates
This theory explains how our body, majorly “autonomic nervous system” adapted from functioning in an environment where, as a child, our needs were either suppressed, unmet or either we were not allowed to authentically express ourself.
The Geeky Facts of our Nervous System
Throughout our schooling, our science textbooks have taught us about basics flow chart of nervous system.
As mentioned in the illustrations, the Autonomic nervous system works involuntarily, i.e., below our level of consciousness and controls our internal environment of the body – such as heart, gut, breathing etc. Its work is completely natural and organic.
This is the old view of learning about what happens in our body when we exercise or find ourself in any unsafe state – it activates our Sympathetic Division that enables to pump blood faster which gives energy to our muscles to either fight in the situation or run away. Hence, the name – fight or flight.
What also happens in our body after we eat food or when we lie down at night and our body is preparing to fall asleep is – it activates the Parasympathetic Division that enables our heart beat to slow down, reduction of energy and our muscles eventually relax. This also happens when we do meditation or release and come back from yoga postures. Hence, the name – rest or digest.
Both these divisions work together and help us adapt to the environment by automatically adjusting to the cues of safety or danger. Now what’s amazing is that, since our mind is a story making machine, our brain picks these cues from the external environment or just from our perceptual stories, i.e., it is responsible for not only confirming our “being safe” in the environment but also “feeling safe”.
Now this story does not end here. The more evolved version of this same theory helps us understand what happens inside our body when we are experiencing
- a mentally unfit state àanxiety, depression, PTSD, childhood neglect or abuse, etc.
- find ourselves stuck in àoverthinking, sleepless nights, work stress, lack of concentration, digestive issues, etc.
Let us learn about it more accurately, that is, the function of Parasympathetic system does not end in rest and digest – and this is what Polyvagal Theory is all about. It is the work founded by the living legend Dr. Stephen W. Porges, director of Brain-Body Centre at University of IIlinois, Chicago, developed from his research work of 4 decades. His first book was published in 2011.
In the word “poly-vagal”, poly means “many” and vagal means “wandering”. It refers to the “vagus nerve” – one of the cranial nerves coming out of the brain and spine (CNS), made up from a collection/bundle of many very thin sensory nerve threads and that spreads or wanders throughout the body (PNS, especially functions under ANS section). It is specially connected with gut and heart. When we are in a stressful situation or stressing ourself over similar thoughts, this vagus nerve releases keeps working against the stress hormone “cortisol” and keep the nervous system regulated, so as to make us adapt ourself to the situation. For this purpose of regulation, this nerve does its function from jumping from one part to another with respect to what the situation is.
This theory further breaks down the function of Parasympathetic branch (rest or digest) of ANS to understand how our responses and reactions, be it verbal and emotional, happens with respect to different situations.
The structure of Vagus Nerve coming out of the brain and spreading through entire upper and visceral body, following the spinal route is spread all over our body, and can be studied in 3 parts
Part 1 – Ventral Vagal – above the diaphragm àconnecting all the organs such as heart, lungs, throat, nerves responsible for face muscles. This is called ventral because this part of vagus nerve travels from front side of brain along with spine. This is also referred to as the “Social Engagement System”. (Explained in article - Part 2)
Part 2 – Dorsal Vagal – below the diaphragm àliver, gut, pancreas, kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs. This is called dorsal because this part of vagus nerve travel in the back side of brain along with spine.
2.1 Immobilisation (high tone) This part of system activates when our body is under shock, non-reactive, dissociated from present, or during a shut-down response. This is also referred to “Freeze”response. For e.g.: we have watched in movies how the news of death of loved one is acted out through a shock state where the person neither cries, nor moves. Or how during a meeting a meeting or an exam, sometimes out of stress or nervousness of performance we ‘black-out’ or forget everything (Dissociation).
Another example could be; if you are way too stressed, you may find yourself blank and absent while driving and suddenly get alert if with loud beep or bright light. These all are examples of your body trying to overcome that stored stress by saving the energy force, so as to help you survive through it. (Disorientation)
2.2 Rest and Digest (Low tone) – This part of system activates when our body is relaxing, destressing – such as watching television, listening songs, etc., falling sleep or digesting the food.
Dorsal vagal PSNS
Here the body collapse immobility –
Responses are in form of à conservation of energy
Living in shame, self-blame
hopelessness - suicidal,
feeling suffocated and trapped, pressure on chest
Prone to stress induced syndromes and diseases
Disconnection from inner environment
Fuel storage & insulin activity, Endorphins that help numb and raise the pain threshold
Heart rate + BP, temperature,
muscle movement, facial expression, social behaviour, sexual response, immune response,
Fight (towards movement) / Flight (away from movement)
Reponses are in form of à overcharged with energy
Frustration Worry and concern
Increase in pain tolerance Sensitive to light
Middle ear muscles turn off to better hear deep and high-pitched sounds that could be indicative of risk
Disconnection from inner environment – Hypervigilant, overthinking, stuck in emotional addiction cycle, defensive reactions
Prone to stress induced syndromes and diseases.
BP+ Heart rate+ fuel availability + adrenaline rush +oxygen circulation +Pupil size
Digestion + Salvation + immune response
Hence, prone to hypertension, cancer, migraines, IBS
(Connection + Safety)
Ventral Vagal PSNS
Responses are in form of à balanced and mindful release of energy
In the present Compassion
Oriented to Environment Curiosity
Digestion, immune system, sound sleep, right amount of Oxytocin produced (more connection and bonding)
Defensive responses, impatience, restlessness,
When mentally and emotionally dysregulated – a person’s Vagal response would either through SNS (fight/flight) or PSNS(Freeze) or through blend of both with respect to situations. The solution is to become conscious of when the body is reacting through which mode and actively stimulating vagus nerve to respond through Ventral Vagal part of PSNS.
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