Understanding Polyvagal Theory & Its Role in Trauma & Stress
Involuntary physiological processes: heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, digestion, sexual arousal.
These automatic processes are all thanks to our autonomic nervous system—the system in charge of keeping us alive. Within our autonomic nervous system, there is our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) and our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).
We now know that there is an undeniable mind-body connection and that if something affects our mental state, it will also affect our physical state and vice versa. This means that trauma then has a physiological effect on our autonomic nervous system and the organs it regulates.
Think about this: a particular smell or song might bring you back to a childhood trauma; stranger’s face may make you feel defensive. Stress and trauma are weaved into our very being, and if not addressed, live in us and are part of everything we do.
When we talk about “trauma,” we don’t talk about the event but rather the response. For example, a particular situation could be devastating for one person, while to another, it will be nothing, and they keep on about their day.
Everything has to do with the body’s response, and much of this can be explained through Dr. Stephen Porges’ groundbreaking polyvagal theory.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
The polyvagal theory helps us understand how it is that trauma lives in the body and continues to shape our world.
It explains the psychological, physiological, and biobehavioral experiences that come after a traumatic experience. The theory is used to look at how the autonomic nervous system plays a part in people’s lives who have experienced trauma.
Before we dive into it, it’s important to note that everyone has experienced trauma in their life. Just because someone’s situation may seem worse does not mean that another person’s trauma is invalid. Again, everything has to do with the response of the body. When our body experiences trauma, our autonomic nervous system changes the way it regulates the body’s organs.
To understand this, we must understand the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve can be described as THE mind-body connection. It’s a bundle of nerves at our brain stem that travels to every organ in our body. Think of it as a two-way highway that sends information to our gut, lungs, heart, digestive system, etc.—and vice versa. The vagus nerve is key in healing from trauma and fostering well-being.
Here’s why: the vagus nerve impacts our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). It also plays a huge role in digestion, immune function, and stress response, and recovery.
Response Stages of Polyvagal Theory
When our autonomic nervous system says a situation is safe, our vagus nerve sends a signal to our body to relax. Our lungs inflate and take in more oxygen, our heart rate slows down, and our digestion functions correctly. When we are in this calm state, we are in social engagement mode, helping us feel safe, secure, and able to easily bond with others.
Activation Mode or Fight or Flight
Our bodies enter activation mode when we feel threatened. In fight or flight mode, our vagus nerve sends an SOS signal to our sympathetic nervous system, activating our stress response and making our cortisol levels rise, our body temperature rise, and our hearts pump faster. We focus on louder, more distressing sounds in this state, and we register only predator sounds (high and low frequencies).
Flight Trauma Response
- Uncomfortable or panicky when still
- Chronic rushing
- History of ending relationships abruptly
- Commitment issues
- Fees trapped
- Energy spent micromanaging people & situations
- Makes plans to avoid downtime
- Throws self into work
- Anxiety and panic attacks Freeze
The vagus nerve has two pathways: social activation and engagement mode and immobilization. In the freezing response, our whole body shuts down. Our bowels clench up, our heart rate and metabolism slow to a crawl, and our breathing may stop. Kind of like how if we see a bear, some of us may freeze completely and detach.
Freeze Trauma Response
- History of shutting down, giving the silent treatment, avoiding something completely
- Hiding away from the world
- Feelings of numbness (life is pointless)
- Procrastination, can’t make small decisions
- Endless scrolling, binge tv
- Confusion over what is actually happening, can’t distinguish between storytelling and reality
- Often misdiagnosed with depression
Nervous System Dysregulation
In today’s fast-paced world, we live in a state of chronic stress. Our nervous system is overworked and underappreciated. We’re living in chronic sympathetic mode.
When we have unresolved trauma, our vagal tone becomes weak (aka our response to stress, threat, more trauma). When we have a weak vagal tone, we also have digestive issues, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, chronic illness etc.
Having a weak vagal tone will keep us stuck in our sympathetic nervous system; think fight or flight. If we have a dorsal vagal tone, we will stay in freeze mode, where we think we are constantly under threat and unsafe.
Signs of low vagal tone
- Can’t regulate emotions
- Issues with focus and concentration
- High inflammation
- Chronic fatigue
- Digestion issues
Even though our autonomic nervous system responses are subconscious, there are ways that we can improve vagal tone to help calm the nervous system.
How to Strengthen Vagal Tone
- Healing the gut (remember, the vagus nerve is our gut/brain connection!)
- Daily movement, dancing, shaking
- Gut health
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Singing (directly calms the vagaus nerve!)
- Cold showers
Understanding polyvagal theory and how our trauma and stress impact our physical and mental health can help us feel empowered to heal! Participating in these easy and accessible tips can do wonders for your health. Let me know in the comments below what you enjoyed learning about or what you are looking forward to trying.