Polyvagal Theory Explained
with Stephen Porges, PhD and Ruth Buczynski, PhD
What Happens When the Fight/Flight Response Fails
Consider this short example.
On CNN they showed an airplane having great difficulty landing. The wings were tipping back and forth and the outcome was uncertain.
After it landed, a reporter interviewed the passengers, going up to one woman and asking, “How did you feel?” The expectation was that the woman would say, “I was really scared. I was ready to jump out of my skin.” But her comment wasn’t that.
She said, “Feel? I passed out.”
Now, was the woman’s passing out a voluntary escape? No, her nervous system detected features of risk.
You see, our neuroception – our nervous system’s evaluation of risk – is functionally unpredictable (and it happens without our awareness). We don’t know how our nervous system will respond.
If that plane hit the ground and went up into flames, her transition from life to death would have been without pain. However, many of the people in exactly the same environment were screaming, while there were probably others who were relatively calm.
So here we have an example of the same scary event being translated by different nervous systems in different ways.
Why Does the Nervous System’s Response Matter?
Well first, let’s back up and review the development of the vagus nerve.
Early in vertebrate evolution, neural regulation of the heart was mediated by an unmyelinated, less-than-efficient vagus. This neural system provided an ability to defend by immobilizing, which meant reducing metabolic demands, reducing oxygen demands, reducing food demands, and surviving.
As mammals evolved, something special happened to the vagus. The evolved vagus was able to dampen the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal circuits to enable mammals to engage socially, and to optimize metabolic resources.
This is one of the main points of the Polyvagal Theory – when we are social and engaged, we’re reducing metabolic demands in order to facilitate health, growth, and restoration.
What Happens to the Nervous System When a Person Has Trauma?
If you are confronted with a challenge:
- The first part of your nervous system will try to negotiate by using the face, using vocalization, using language.
- If that doesn’t work, there’s going to be a retraction of the new social engagement system to promote mobilization.
- If that doesn’t work, then you’re really going to gear up the sympathetic nervous system for fight-flight.
But if you can’t escape, and you can’t fight, increasing sympathetic nervous system activity is not adaptive since mobilizing will not be an effective defense.
Under these circumstances the nervous system seems to evaluate the risk of threat and will trigger a shutdown response. This is similar to the scenarios described by people with trauma histories, especially small children, or people confronted by larger and stronger people, or experiences in an environment where someone has a weapon.
The problem is that when we start dealing with trauma, the clinical world is obsessed with the event and not with understanding that a person’s response to the event is the critical feature.
Here’s What’s Important . . .
If people go into a state of immobilization with fear, the nervous system doesn’t provide them with an easy way to get out, meaning getting back to a normal system where social engagement processes are easily recruited.
For most people, the trauma experience results in the development of a complex narrative of why they don’t want to socially interact: they don’t trust people…basically they have visceral physiological feelings.
They’re exhausted, their nervous system is detecting risk when there is no real risk, and they are trying to negotiate this very complex world. The narrative they’re building is an attempt to support the physiological experience.
But, the real question is how to get a person out of that state? How do you recruit the wonderful social engagement system to inhibit the sympathetic mobilization and to move out of the dangerous immobilization state? This is where some ideas from the Polyvagal Theory are slowly creeping into the clinical world.
The First Thing That the Client Needs to Do in Any Environment
The first thing that the client needs to do in any environment is to navigate the space to ensure safety. Pat Ogden is truly a master in understanding this feature. In her clinical settings, she empowers the client to move and even position the therapist to ensure that the client experiences a sense of safety.
Often feeling safe has a lot to do with the proximity to the therapist. In a sense, the therapist, as another human being, is dangerous to a client who has been traumatized. To reduce these features of danger, Pat empowers the client to navigate in the space of her office to feel safe.
How to Re-enlist the Social Engagement System to Quicken Healing
Once there is a feeling of safety, there’s a shift in physiological state. When there is that shift in physiological state, then spontaneous engagement behaviors occur: the tone of the voice changes and facial expression changes.
Now if the therapist is reciprocal and responds with engagement behaviors characterized by prosodic voice and positive facial affect, the social engagement system of the client is stimulated.
Based on the Polyvagal Theory, Here Are Two Hints for Clinicians
One, negotiate safety, and two, understand that our nervous system responds to the features of others differently in safe environments than in dangerous situations or even in noisy places.
Because noisy, low frequency sounds can trigger our nervous system to think that a predator might be nearby, the first thing we should do to a clinical setting is make it quiet. Get rid of the low frequency sounds.
Once our nervous system feels safer, then the therapeutic strategy is to trigger the neural regulation of the social engagement system.
How would we do that? This is where listening to vocal music, the prosodic features of sound even without another person, can have the effect of making us feel safer.
Want more ideas and strategies you can use with your clients today?
Check out a course featuring Stephen Porges, PhD:
Why the Vagal System Holds the Key to the Treatment of Trauma
2 CE/CME Credits Available
The Treating Trauma Master Series
10 CE/CME Credits Available
Working with the Pain of Abandonment
4.25 CE/CME Credits Available
How to Work With Shame
4 CE/CME Credits Available