Have you ever felt that vague feeling of uncertainty and fear in a situation but don’t know why you feel it? Even when everyone seems to be completely fine, but you can sense that something is wrong. We may not be conscious about it but our mind reads hundreds of social cues every day in our day to day life. Observing the smallest details from facial expressions to body tones. Whether we are aware of these observations or not, our mind is constantly shaping our feelings and experiences from these social signals.
What is the polyvagal theory?
The polyvagal theory was discovered by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994 and it is a collection of evolutionary, neuroscientific, and psychological theories that describe the role of the vagus nerve in emotional regulation, social cues, and the fear response. It emphasizes our evolutionary perspective where we needed different physiological states to feel connected with our tribe and have a sense of safety.
It describes that our nervous system operates on three fundamental sub-systems based on the cues of safety and danger. These three systems operate under two conditions, one in which we are stressed and don’t feel safe, the other is when we are functioning normally and feel safe. The safety is completely relevant, what might be safe for one person might be dangerous for another based on individual experience. Our nervous system is using a feature called neuroception to detect danger or threats and to adapt accordingly to the environment.
The top system among the three is the one which we recruit first in cases of danger and fears. It is the social engagement system. It is responsible for controlling our breath, heartbeat, facial expressions, and voice. If our neuroception detects a threat, the first step is to operate within the social engagement system and communicate. This is the first step taken by our body to bring ourselves back into a normal state.
If the social engagement system fails, our body moves onto the sympathetic nervous system. This system engages in the flight response and tells our body to leave the environment and run towards safety. If leaving the area is not an option, the fight response takes over the body to defend or fight back. The sympathetic nervous system recruits all the functions of mobilization such as torso and limbs which can help a person escape or fight.
If even these two systems fail, then our body moves on to the third where if a situation becomes life-threatening or deadly. In such cases, the parasympathetic nervous system is getting activated. It is also known as the freeze response where you stop, dissociate, get shocked, or even faint.
In other stressful and difficult situations between social engagement and sympathetic systems, protective and defensive behaviours such as negotiation, appeasement, survival, oppression, denial, lying, manipulation, control, and passive-aggressive behaviour are expressed. These operate involuntarily to bring us back into a sense of safety or to keep us from feeling pain in the face of death.
However, under normal conditions when we feel safe, our nervous system operates in a connecting way through features such as face to face engagement, eye contact, or a soothing and melodic voice.
When we are safe and connected, we can engage in activities like yoga, sex, work, exercise, dancing, or art. It is here where pleasure and physical connection is possible, this safe place of sympathetic arousal is called mobilization.
In a hybrid state between social engagement and sympathetic system, when our body is in a normal state we experience to play, sensuality, and sexuality.
When we have exhausted ourselves from physical pleasure, our body falls into an immobile state where we can rest, relax, be happy, meditate, and sleep. In this parasympathetic way, our system can relax in the most exquisite way.
Why is polyvagal theory a game-changer?
Polyvagal theory can help us understand our body’s working and thus aid us in changing our nervous system’s response to better tackle stress and trauma. Depending on the situation and environment the nervous system can shift from one state to another. This is where different therapy methods come in. They can help restore the body-mind connection, thus creating health, rejuvenation, and healthy relationships with self and others.
According to this theory, our memories can impact our physical state in a very discreet way. Even when the threat is gone, our body might still perceive danger and the defence systems stay engaged thus keeping us from being in a relaxed and positive state.
The polyvagal theory relates our autonomic nervous system to behaviours and responses to trauma. This theory helps us understand our nervous system in the context of our environmental factors and how it helps influence our behaviour. When used in therapy, this theory helps explain to patients how to control their body’s responses to calm their minds down.
This technique has striking similarities with how yoga operates and researchers often call yoga the top-bottom or bottom-top technique. In yoga, we use similar practices that initiate the mind and affect the body or initiate the body and affect the mind in vice versa. We use postures to affect the autonomic nervous system that greatly affects the quality of our thoughts and emotions.
The goals of this technique are to affect the nervous system in a way to create a relaxation response and be easily available to move between states if your body goes into a negative state. It can have physiological, mental, emotional, and behavioural benefits for people suffering from trauma or mental health disorders.