Updated: Sep 18, 2020
The Polyvagal Theory was developed by a distinguished scientist called Stephen Porges and maps the evolution of the human nervous system. The theory gives coaches and counsellors a useful framework for helping clients map how they are travelling the inner path during the process and also what approaches might be most helpful for them. Sometimes the scientific papers can have a lot of terms unfamiliar to clients so I have attempted to explain the concept in everyday language that can be useful for everyone. This information can help educate people about the underlying functions of the nervous system that have a big influence on our body, mind, emotions and behaviours.
The window of tolerance describes the regulated functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the how it responds to small stressors and then returns to homeostasis. When you are within your ‘window of tolerance’ you feel like you can cope with your life experience and feel connected to others. The polyvagal theory calls this nervous system state “Ventral Vagal Response.” It’s the green light for thriving where we can easily regulate our emotions and feel connected, safe, our immune system is functioning well. In "ventral" we can sleep, we can listen and understand others and we feel calm and grounded. In mindfulness we call this state, "presence" and it helps build resiliency to cultivate this state and savour it.
When you experience something traumatic or perceive an experience to be traumatic like (death, severe injury, violence, interpersonal harm, or something that feels deeply threatening, extremely abnormal and terrifying like bushfires, war or sexual, emotional or physical abuse) your nervous system reacts with hyper or hypo arousal. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in immediately when we feel this stressed and it affects almost every organ in the body in some way.
Hyper arousal is marked by feelings like you’re out of control and want to fight or run away from the situation, your hands get clammy, you feel afraid, the heartbeat spikes, muscles tense, stomach becomes knotted (digestion slows down), senses become hyper focussed and you scan the environment for danger, It’s a feeling of intense anxiety or panic.
You might also find during extreme stress that your dorsal vagus kicks in and you feel dissociated and experience what is called hypo arousal where your body shuts down, freezes and you zone out. This response is an adaptive or self-preserving function of the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us conserve our energy in preparation to fight or flight again if there is an opportunity to get away. This state can feel like emotional dissociation, dizzyness, numbness, spaced out, feel no pain, slower breathing, constriction around the throat, body posture might collapse and we feel like rolling into a ball.
Having experienced trauma in my own life as both a child and in my adult years I found it difficult to feel connection and sometimes felt zoned out and unable to focus because of my nervous system either being in a hyper aroused state or shut down in dorsal. Extended mindfulness practices with experienced teachers has certainly helped me release deep trauma but the polyvagal theory has been so helpful in having a greater understanding about what my body does when it goes into these states, why it is doing it and how to regulate up or down into my window of tolerance or back to presence as I like to call it. Through regulating skills and being able to unpack my trauma slowly and gently over years I have recovered childhood memory I had struggled to understand my whole life and had stored in ways that facilitated immature coping mechanisms like shame. I have felt a more holistic connection with my past (less fragmented) and far greater levels of self-understanding, including why some key relationships went the way they did and what I have learned from these adult experiences. Everyone can work on resolving trauma I've done the inner work and found the most benefit from supporting relationships, being curious and courageous, mindfulness practice and movement practices like dance or yoga. It's helped me feel much safer in my body, alive and present and able to live a rich and meaningful life of connection with others and one that is not bound up by the past.
A Story about a Lion and a Gazelle.
If you think of the gazelle in the savannah, at the slightest rustling, it will look up, hyper aware of what is happening around her. She'll suspect a lion is near and will orient to the sound. Her body will get ready to react as soon as necessary to escape the lion. Every organ in the body gets affected by this system and goes into a hyper alert state of fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system).
As soon as the lion catches the gazelle a separate system will then get activated. This is one of the parasympathetic systems which leads to immobilisation. In clients this can look like dissociation/numbness. This is where the gazelle ‘plays dead’. But in reality the system also affects every organ in the body. The heart rate slows down, the digestive system slows down, as does breathing and the brain also goes into shut down. This can be seen as the tonicity of the muscles dissipate – the head flops, the body drops, eyes droop. These are signs that the primitive vagus system has been activated. If the lion gets distracted, and the gazelle sees a moment of opportunity, she’s up and sprinting off again, looking like she suddenly came back to life (back into sympathetic nervous system response).
All this happens automatically and it can take time before your system regulates back into your window of tolerance. This is not something you consciously choose or are mindful of, it’s a reaction of the nervous system. It’s important to understand that how we experience trauma depends on how we perceive it. Sometimes we can experience things as threatening when they might not have been intended to be. If we have experienced a trauma as an adult we might find we become triggered by anything that reminds us of the original trauma including sounds, smells, interpersonal situations, particular environments and emotions. If the trauma occurs in childhood then most likely there will be deeper developmental issues because trauma memories are stored differently in the brain but again triggers can experienced as well as more complex interpersonal difficulties, learning and health problems.
Triggering can occur for months and years after an initial trauma experienced and I think it is important to understand when a person is triggered or having experienced a trauma their pre-frontal cortex goes off-line and it’s very difficult for them to think rationally and feel safe, in fact their behaviour will become hyper vigilant as a result. If there is a long history of trauma then it becomes even more difficult to distinguish between the trauma events and the condition becomes one of constant feelings of not being safe and it takes it toll on the body mind. This is why cognitive approaches to helping trauma sufferers are largely ineffective and a somatic approach is more gentle, organic and helpful.
Resolving original traumas can sometimes take years but can happen with good supportive and compassionate relationships, self care and compassion, awareness and body based practices like trauma-sensitive mindfulness, dance, yoga and somatic forms of holistic therapy. The most recent neuroscience is revealing effective ways to help people suffering from trauma gain access to the window of tolerance and slowly expand it allowing the trauma to be released gradually like a shaken bottle of coke that you slowly and carefully un-tighten the lid and release all the trapped energy rather than overwhelming the system and re-triggering trauma.
Ways to regulate from a hyper aroused state
Anchor yourself by grounding. Use the breath to be aware of the senses and bodily sensations, label specific feelings in the body. Expand outwardly and note the things in your environment.
Focus your mind on your strengths, values and resilient experiences.
Make sure you are in a safe environment and assert that is your wish if you need more space.
Explore the 5 senses to calm yourself.
Take a pause and get some space from triggers, take as long as you need before trying to reconnect.
Pausing and to take some conscious breaths and ask colleagues to discuss something.
Ways to regulate from hypo arousal as trauma memories become processed
If in dorsal (shut down) you may like to get up and shake it out or dance or practice gentle yoga to feel back in your body.
Patting down your body with your hands
Abdominal breath work and mindful movement along with talking can help move you out of dorsal
Going for a run or brisk walk in nature
Practicing assertiveness and boundaries in relationships, naming emotions and trying to feel and stay connected to healthy relationship patterns
Exploring the 5 senses to activate them.
Trauma, whether it's big T (complex childhood trauma) or little t (single experience), is a lot more common than you might think and like all conditions exist on a spectrum and each one of us is a unique life force with how we perceive, appraise, react and respond to our environment. We all have an organic, self organising system that can heal given the right support and conditions. With climate change and environmental disasters like bushfires, political and social unrest, growing inequality and rising authoritarianism we need to mindful of trauma and vicarious trauma in our professions and personal life. I don't believe there is anything wrong with us and most of don't need fixing; in many ways trauma is adaptive response for all animals and our healing comes from acceptance, compassion, reconnecting to now and learning to trust the wisdom of our own body mind. We can make meaning from these experiences by giving our time and energy to help make the world a more just, equitable and sustainable place for all humans to thrive.
If you're interested in learning more about the polyvagal theory, embodiment and the inner work of self-discovery through mindfulness, coaching and counselling join me online for our Workshop "Your Wellspring" on October 3. You can register here.