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Polyvagal Theory

One of the most useful pieces of information that I am able to share with clients is Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory. Explained simply, it is a really powerful way for us to understand and regulate how we feel, moment by moment. This is the fourth in a series of blogs about how our nervous system  drives our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviour.

What IS the vagus nerve?

Vagus, meaning “wanderer,” is aptly named. From the brain stem at the base of the skull, the vagus travels in two directions: downward through the lungs, heart, diaphragm, and stomach and upward to connect with nerves in the neck, throat, eyes, and ears. It’s a key part of our nervous system. 

Just to put things in context, the autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, and responds to signals and sensations via three pathways, each with a characteristic pattern of response.

  • The sympathetic branch is found in the middle part of the spinal cord and represents the pathway that prepares us for action. It responds to cues of danger and triggers the release of adrenaline, which fuels the fight-or-flight response.
  • In the parasympathetic branch, the remaining two pathways are found in the vagus nerve. The vagus is divided into two parts: The ventral vagal pathway and the dorsal vagal pathway. 
    • The ventral vagal pathway responds to cues of safety and supports feelings of being safely engaged and socially connected. 
    • In contrast, the dorsal vagal pathway responds to cues of extreme danger. It takes us out of connection, out of awareness, and into a protective state of collapse. When we feel frozen, numb, or “not here,” the dorsal vagus has taken control. 

3 stages of evolution

Stephen Porges identified a hierarchy of response built into our autonomic nervous system , a key part of the evolutionary development of our species. 

  • The dorsal vagal is the oldest pathway, it reflects back to our ancient vertebrate or reptilian ancestors. 
  • The sympathetic branch was next to develop and controls the fight or flight reactions  including an accelerated heart rate and inhibited digestion. These functions help prepare an organism’s body for the physical strain required to escape a potentially dangerous situation or to fend off a predator. 
  • The most recent addition, the ventral vagal pathway, brings patterns of social engagement that are unique to mammals. When we are firmly grounded in our ventral vagal pathway, we feel safe and connected, calm and social. 

Below the level of awareness

Stephen Porges came up with the word neuroception to describe how our neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. Neuroception explains why a baby coos at a caregiver but cries at a stranger, or why a toddler enjoys a parent’s embrace but views a hug from a stranger as an assault.

When we feel calm and safe and connected to other people, we experience the ventral vagal state. However even a small “neuroception” of danger can trigger us out of this state and backwards on the evolutionary timeline into the sympathetic branch. Here we are mobilised to respond and take action. Taking action can help us return to the safe and social state. It is when we feel as though we are trapped and can’t escape the danger that the dorsal vagal path- way pulls us all the way back to our evolutionary beginnings. In this state we are immobilised. We shut down to survive. From here, it is a long way back to feeling safe and social.

Importantly, these cues for safety and danger operate beneath our awareness. The three elements of our autonomic nervous system—ventral, sympathetic, and dorsal—act as our largely subconscious surveillance system, working in the background to read subtle signals of safety or threat. 

An example from everyday life

For example, if you enter a loud, crowded bar and see strangers huddled together, laughing, you may unconsciously pick up cues of rejection which don’t really exist – they are laughing at me! In a millisecond, your sympathetic nervous system leaps into action, signaling you to turn round and leave the bar immediately feeling miserable and rejected. 

Just as you head for the exit, you notice a girl who was at the bar breaking away from the crowd and walking toward you. She smiles warmly, extends her hand and introduces herself and invites you to come and meet everyone. Almost instantly, your breathing slows, your heart rate goes down, and your body relaxes into the experience of Ah, I’m safe now, I’m one of the crowd after all. Your nervous system has just guided you from a sympathetic state to a ventral vagal one, permitting what Porges calls your social engagement system to come fully online. You’re now calm, ready to connect—and maybe to get involved in a new conversation and make new friends.

My next blog looks at the polyvagal theory and trauma.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also: Fight flight and freezeFreezeTrauma and the Brain

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