Polyvagal Informed Psychotherapy
The Polyvagal Theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and gave us detailed insight into our nervous system and its role in our mental and physical well-being.
We are all wired for connection and safety, so when events that threaten connections or safety arise, our nervous system activates to reestablish safety. The autonomic nervous system is our personal surveillance system, always on guard and asking, “Is this safe?” Its goal is to protect us by sensing safety and risk, listening momentarily to what is happening in and around our bodies and our connections to others.
Our nervous system's listening and assessing happens far below awareness and far away from our conscious control. Our nervous system's awareness comes from something called neuroception, which is the perception of our autonomic nervous system and not our mind. Once our minds become aware of the various physical states we are experiencing, we begin to make meaning out of these signs and create meaning behind our day-to-day lives.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is split into two branches:
The sympathetic nervous system: 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 danger cues and triggers the release of adrenaline, which fuels the fight-or-flight response.
The parasympathetic nervous system has two pathways, The dorsal vagus, and the ventral vagus. The nerve 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.
The ventral vagal pathway responds to safety cues and supports feeling safely engaged and socially connected. This is our rest and digest state, where we feel free, connected, open to new experiences, and connected to the world. When people refer to activating the vagus nerve to feel relaxed, this is the branch they are referring to.
The dorsal vagal pathway responds to cues of extreme danger. It takes us out of connection and awareness and into a protective state of collapse. This is our shutdown mode, where we feel disconnected, dissociated, depressed, and numb.