How to be with others with awareness of polyvagal theory

I’m summarizing polyvagal theory, originated by Dr. Stephen Porges, from a 10:48-minute video interview of him. I’m doing this for my own understanding, and I want to share because it’s a new way of thinking about traumatic responses. It has major implications for my work, and I’ve added my own comments in brackets. I am sure I will continue to refine my understanding.

Dr. Porges says that polyvagal theory is the understanding of how our body reacts to various challenges. The autonomic nervous system [involuntary, like heart beat] has evolved in vertebrates, changing and adding new circuits that function in a hierarchy. The newer circuits can inhibit older circuits. The older circuits were circuits of defense.

[The image below is my attempt to describe the branches of the ANS and how we automatically behave when we feel safe and when we feel threatened. Remember, newer circuits can inhibit older circuits, so what do you do if your friend suddenly looks threatened — and there’s no actual threat in the present moment? You make eye contact and speak reassuringly — helping to move them from threatened sympathetic to safe social. If they freeze, you do the above and also engage them playfully, perhaps by squeezing their hand and inviting them to squeeze back — helping to move them from threatened parasympathetic to safe sympathetic to safe social. Thanks to Stephen Derkacz for the inspiration.]

polyvagal chart

hierarchical branches of the autonomic nervous system in safety and in threat, according to polyvagal theory

Most diseases, including chronic diseases of physical health, are really diseases of the autonomic nervous system, which changes with mental health as well. (See my 2011 post about the percentage of illness that’s related to stress.)

The newest circuit [that Dr. Porges’ research discovered in the vagus nerve] is a circuit for social interaction, only seen in mammals, who have a nerve running from the brainstem to the heart that’s also linked to the muscles of the face and head and is involved in vocalization, listening, facial expressivity, and gesturing.

This [social nervous] system enables our bodies to be in states that support health, growth, and restoration. It’s interactive. [We are very social creatures, and we automatically respond to seeing others’ facial expressions and gauging our relative safety.]

When the [social nervous] system doesn’t work, we start seeing the behaviors and symptoms associated with mental health issues: mobilized behavior, rage, tantrums, anxiety [sympathetic dominance, fight or flight].

Polyvagal theory got its name for an earlier study of the evolution of the ANS where Dr. Porges and associates identified another response: shutting down or passing out, which are considered dissociative states in mental health. Previously to this discovery, physiological immobilization associated with fear was not acknowledged in psychology and psychiatry, and it wasn’t included in studies of trauma. [When fight or flight fails because the person is unable to escape, they freeze.]

People who freeze in fear have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s in the autonomic nervous system, a reaction beyond their control. Understanding this shifts one’s identity from victim to survivor. Behavior isn’t always voluntary, having intention, being learned. There are a lot of responses that are implicit in the body.

Sometimes people who experience freezing blame themselves afterward. “Why didn’t I fight?” [We’ve heard this a lot recently about women who were raped or felt threatened with rape, like Dr. Ford and others in #metoo. Actually, they involuntarily froze.] It wasn’t a voluntary choice. Their body made this decision beyond their conscious awareness. If we had to make a conscious decision about whether to fight, flee, or freeze, we’d probably be dead. It’s adaptive for the species for our bodies to have this built in.

Our own personal history influences this. Learning through association is out of the realm of awareness. For example, when Dr. Porges was talking to a female colleague with a history of trauma and his voice deepened, she had a fear reaction, because that voice tone was associated in her memory with her father’s voice.

The body responds, and we don’t always know what we’re reacting to. In therapy, the person can come to appreciate the defensive, adaptive behavior of their body. We are always aware of our bodily responses that are triggered by memories associated with feeling unsafe, [even if we don’t immediately recall the memory].

When we recontextualize, we respect our bodies and appreciate these responses. Part of traumatization is disrespect for the body, feeling the nervous system failed us and feeling angry at ourselves. Be appreciative and love what the body did. [You survived.]

The organs below the diaphragm are part of this immobilization response. When people have had shutdown experiences, they experience irritable bowel and digestive problems.  Fight or flight responses are above the diaphragm.

Improving vagal tone

When do you feel safe? When are you on guard?

If you feel safe except when there is an actual threat to your safety, then you have high vagal tone.

If you feel guarded most or all of the time, even when there is no actual threat to your safety, you have low vagal tone. Low vagal tone can be raised.

I wonder what percentage of Americans feel threatened when they are not facing an actual threat. Perception of threat is, of course, subjective.

The vagus nerve is a big, long nerve — almost as long as the spinal cord and nearly as thick — that comes out of your brainstem, goes down your neck into your torso with branches affecting all of your organs except the adrenal glands.

Screen Shot 2018-11-08 at 9.30.02 PM

When you feel safe and relaxed, this nerve helps your organs function better. Your heartbeat slows, your breathing slows, digestion improves. This is when repairs take place.

The vagus also influences social functioning: facial expressions and whether your voice sounds animated, inviting engagement.

I’ve gotten interested in how to raise vagal tone and will be posting more about it as I research and learn. For now, here are some activities that can raise vagal tone:

  • singing or humming
  • pranayama (yogic breathing exercises)
  • gargling (it’s near the back of the throat)
  • feeling connected
  • cuddling
  • friendly eye contact
  • cold showers
  • compassion for self and others
  • gratitude
  • yoga
  • massage
  • craniosacral therapy

This is my first post while researching applications that I can use myself, share with my friends (including you), and apply to my bodywork clients. I will add links to subsequent posts below.

How to be with others with awareness of polyvagal theory

An interview with Stephen Porges: polyvagal theory, or how the nervous system is affected in autism, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and trauma

Nexus, Colorado’s Holistic Health and Spirituality Journal.

This interview with Dr. Stephen Porges, whose career is based on understanding the evolution of the human nervous system, outlines some of the basics of polyvagal theory.

This theory is being tested in trauma recovery sessions. It’s exciting because it helps explain how and why people freeze or experience fight-flight reactions in response to trauma — and the route back to normal, healthy functioning, no matter how long ago the trauma occurred or how often it happened.

Polyvagal theory is increasingly becoming part of the training of bodyworkers, therapists, and educators. In a future post, I will describe how to tell which nervous system (freeze, fight or flight, or parasympathetic) is dominant at any given moment.

This theory is based on an in-depth understanding of the vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, which wanders (the Latin word vagus means wandering, like vagabond and vagrant) from the brain stem down through the body, affecting the face, heart, lungs, and gut.

The brain evolved hierarchically in vertebrates, and the neural circuits of the older nervous systems are still present, accessed hierarchically.

RD: So one thing happens then another thing happens then another thing?

SP: Right. This influences how we react to the world. The hierarchy is composed of three neural circuits. One circuit may override another. We usually react with our newest system, and if that doesn’t work, we try an older one, then the oldest. We start with our most modern systems, and work our way backward.

So polyvagal theory considers the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and its organization; but it also emphasizes that the vagal system is not a single unit, as we have long thought. There are actually two vagal systems, an old one and a new one. That’s where the name polyvagal comes from.

The final, or newest stage, which is unique to mammals, is characterized by a vagus having myelinated pathways. The vagus is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are two major branches. The most recent is myelinated and is linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalization.

Here’s how it works in action:

SP: Let’s say you’re a therapist or a parent or a teacher, and one of your clients, students or children’s faces is flat, with no facial expression. The face has no muscle tone, the eyelids droop and gaze averts. It is highly likely that individual will also have auditory hypersensitivities and difficulty regulating his or her bodily state. These are common features of several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.

RD: How will polyvagal theory change treatment options for people with these disorders?

SP: Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can’t sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?” or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes,” when these behaviors are absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.

There’s much more fascinating information you can read by clicking the link at the top of this post.

Altucher on oxytocin and polyvagal theory, with humor

10 Unusual Ways to Release Oxytocin Into Your Life Altucher Confidential.

I love this guy. He’s so real. I can only wish I was as good a writer as James Altucher.

He tells about being caught shoplifting as a kid, his disgust for going to the bathroom, cortisol, stress, the vagus nerve, a photo of a woman’s tattoo of “Fight or Flight”, and oxytocin.

There’s another photo of a foot with the chemical formula for oxytocin tattooed on it.

Then he lists 10 ways to increase your oxytocin levels.

One of the ways happens to be shooting guns. I don’t think that one would work for me. Loud sudden noises like gunshots make me really jumpy. That’s cortisol, not oxytocin. Maybe that’s a guy thing?

I would replace that one with getting a massage. I notice that with almost everyone, receiving massage decreases their cortisol. I can tell from feeling their energy before and after, gauged by how they move and their voices.

For others, especially those who are accustomed to regular massage, an hour or so of good bodywork vastly increases their oxytocin. They are all soft and mellow and receptive and happy afterwards.

I would also add rocking a sleeping baby, but you might have had to nurse your own baby first to get that feeling.

The rest of Altucher’s recommendations for increasing oxytocin work. Even using Facebook! And I especially like his strategy for dating.

I will tell you my pre-date secret. In the brief period when I was single in between separation and re-marriage I had a technique before every date. I would watch either Michael Cera doing comedy or Louis CK doing standup. This would get me laughing, make my oxytocin hormones go on fire, and then I’d go right into the date, with all my sex hormones raging. Plus. I would be temporarily funnier, with a half-life of about two hours. I knew after four hours I would be boring again so the date would have to be over by then. I do this before talks also.