In times of stress or danger, our body is hard-wired to respond. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight action response. There is another response — courtesy of the parasympathetic nervous system — known as freeze-or-faint. These responses are related to branches of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It connects your brain to organs like the intestines, stomach, lungs, and heart. In layman’s terms, the vagus nerve is what makes the mind-body connection possible. Have you ever had “butterflies” in your stomach? Or a stomach in knots? The vagus nerve is why we feel a “gut reaction” to certain situations. All of the above relates to Polyvagal Theory.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
Created by Dr. Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory takes the fight-flight-freeze responses into account within the realm of psychotherapy. When a person feels safe, there are in a position to have a higher cognitive function. If they sense danger (real or perceived), higher functions shut down. When this happens on a chronic basis, it is as if your brain gets stuck in the “on” position. It’s “on” for fight or flight or freeze. In other words, it’s difficult to even imagine safety, e.g.
- You will misread the cues you are receiving from other people
- You’re more likely to assume others are being aggressive or threatening
- Anger will be perceived all around you
- When correct social cues are absent, it becomes nearly impossible to self-regulate
Over time, this trend will create a dangerously false perception. You’ll see all people as a source of danger. This keeps the involuntary cycle going. You can’t fight. You can’t flee. That’s when “freeze” kicks in. You shut down. The Polyvagal Theory factors in this kind of shutdown. It empowers therapists to more effectively treat clients dealing with chronic issues like trauma and anxiety. The goal is to help them feel safe again.
How Polyvagal Theory Can Help You Feel Safe Again
Generally speaking, psychotherapy for trauma puts the primary focus on either the fight or the flight factors. Polyvagal-informed therapy, conversely, helps guide the client out of the shutdown phase. How is this relief accomplished? Your qualified therapist is intently focused on your own social cues, e.g.
- Facial expressions
- Vocal inflections
- Body language
- Eye contact
- Vocal tone
More specific to you are customized exercises. Taught during your sessions, the goal is to relax your vagus nerve via relaxation techniques like:
- Meditation: this may include humming meditation
- Exercise: consider cardio, high-intensity weight training, and daily walking
- Socializing: get some laughter back into your life!
- Singing and Chanting: alone or with others
- Exposure to Cold: this can range from splashing water on your face to taking an ice-cold shower
Breathing exercises are a powerful component of Polyvagal-informed therapy. A particular form of this involves slow, deep breathing from your diaphragm. Emphasize a longer exhalation. Research shows that this kind of breathing — for even just two minutes — will engage the vagus nerve and recalibrate your responses.
Other ways to calm your nervous system:
- Massage (this can induce diaphragm massage and also, foot massages are particularly effective)
- Foam rolling
- Body scan exercises
- Yin Yoga
- Sound healing
You Probably Have Questions!
If you’re struggling with anxiety or post-trauma symptoms, you probably don’t want to focus on nerves or any form of anatomy. You want to know where and how to get relief. Will the Polyvagal Theory make a difference? I invite you to read more about trauma therapy and set up a confidential consultation. Learn more. Ask questions. Create some optimism for your future. Healing and recovery are within your reach. I’m here to help you start this proven and powerful process.