This blog post was written by Rachel E. Sellers and initially published on her website here: https://www.rachelesellers.com/blog/polywhat-an-intro-to-the-polyvagal-theory
The word “Polyvagal Theory” just makes it sound like it’s going to be some super-complex, hyper-sciency theory or idea that is incomprehensible. But here’s the thing— it’s not.
I’m passionate about teaching people about this theory because I think that you should know about your nervous system. Why? Because learning about it is this really cool portal to self-awareness and self-compassion. We grow up learning things about our bodies like our 5 senses and how our hearts work but no one ever teaches us about our nervous system, a system that is so intricately involved in almost everything we do and explains why we do what we do. I feel a little cheated, to be honest. The fact that I learned this stuff after inhabiting this planet for a whole 30 years of life?! At least I get to make up for it now by teaching adolescents and teens this stuff when they see me for therapy.
Okay, let me break down this theory. There are two types of nervous systems in the body— the central and the peripheral. The Polyvagal Theory speaks to the inner-workings of the peripheral nervous system and more specifically the autonomic nervous system. This system is responsible for regulating involuntary bodily processes like heart rate, respiration, digestion, and pupil contraction. In other words, this system operates on an unconscious level. We don’t tell our body how or when to digest food or breathe— it just does it. In a more general sense, this system is involved in taking cues from the outside world and altering the body’s internal state.
For a long time, scientists believed that the autonomic nervous system had two primary means of responding to the outside world. These two nervous system responses might be words you're familiar with: Sympathetic (fight/flight response) and Parasympathetic (freeze/collapse response). But in 1994 Dr. Stephen Porges published his Polyvagal Theory, claiming a 3rd nervous system response (hence the name “Poly”, meaning more than one). The word “Vagal” is in reference to the Vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that is involved with our parasympathetic system. The Vagus nerve is a bidirectional nerve that runs from our brainstems to our gut. It also connects our brains to other organs like the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Think of it as one of those make-shift telephones that perhaps you made in elementary school. The one with two paper cups and a long, thin string between them. The Vagus nerve is just like that, and it’s how our brain sends information to organs in our bodies (and vice versa).
What Dr. Porges discovered was this— there are 3 types of nervous system responses and the response that is activated is due to whether the body perceives safety or danger in the environment. Dr. Porges even refers to his theory as the science of safety or danger.
So you’re probably thinking…so what are these 3 responses?
These responses happen automatically and without any help from the most mature parts of our brain (the parts of the brain that can logically and rationally think through whether or not the body is safe).
This is because before the brain makes meaning of an experience, the autonomic nervous system has already assessed the environment and initiated some kind of nervous system response. Put simply, this happens unconsciously. And there’s a fancy word for it called neuroception.
Neuroception is similar to perception but it happens reflexively and automatically. This happens in the most primitive part of the brain (brainstem and mid-brain). We don’t wake up in the morning and consciously say, “Today, I’m going to use the mature parts of my brain to scan all of my environments for safety or danger.” Instead, our nervous system does this for us. Porges refers to neuroception as “detection without awareness” and “how neural circuits distinguish whether people or environments are safe, dangerous, or life-threatening.”
So what does all of this mean? What this means is that you were born with an inborn security system. Like, your body has cameras, metaphorically speaking, all over it that are scanning the world for safety cues or danger cues. Another way of thinking about it is to think of your autonomic nervous system as a compass. It’s constantly orienting you, shifting towards social engagement, mobilization, or disconnection.
Understanding the various parts of our nervous system invites us to a deeper understanding of Self. Sometimes we give our “thinking brain” way too much credit. In actuality, our nervous system and our limbic system (our emotional brain) drive the majority of our behaviors.
AND YET, the mind-body connection is still perceived as hippy-dippy and fluffy. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Your body knows stuff before your brain consciously does. Your body is your first line of response, your biggest ally. This has a zillion implications for mental health and life and relationships and healing from trauma (and basically any other mental health “disorder.”) I’m going to post another blog soon about these specific implications, so stay tuned! Or better yet, listen to my podcast! I go in-depth with this in Episode #3 of Season 1!
I want to leave you with a visual representation of the Polyvagal Theory— see graphic below! By means of application, have you felt your body in either of these states this week? What triggered the response you had?
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