What is Polyvagal Theory?


Polyvagal Theory (PVT) is a theory that links the functioning of the autonomic nervous system to social behavior and overall wellness. It was developed by Dr Stephen W. Porges, who describes trauma as chronic disruption in connectedness; these disruptions carry their imprint through our lives via our nervous systems. Porges looks at co-regulation and safety, as he explains that it is impossible to live happily and engage with people when feeling unsafe or threatened.

The theory is used to look at how the autonomic nervous system affects people, with the understanding that trauma lives in the body and continues to shape our lives and relationships. Polyvagal theory links the state of our nervous system to how safe and connected we feel in our everyday lives. We may be in distress as a reflection of the state of our nervous system or we may feel grounded, connected and available for learning.

What is Polyvagal Theory? 1

Polyvagal theory – How it works

When we experience trauma, our nervous system changes the way it regulates the body’s organs. To comprehend how this relates to people’s overall health and wellness, Polyvagal theory focuses on understanding the vagus nerve and how it’s involved in our response to high levels of stress. The vagus nerve impacts our parasympathetic nervous system and our sympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve plays a role in digestion, immune function, stress response, and importantly, also recovery. PVT teaches that the autonomic nervous system may be divided into separate pathways: the dorsal vagus, sympathetic and the ventral vagus. Understanding this division is elemental to polyvagal theory because it teaches us how and why we regulate high levels of stress.

Polyvagal theory helps us to use this knowledge to support clients to track and regulate emotions according to this lens; the body feels everything first through sensations, these become our emotions, then we utilize thoughts to make sense of our emotions. Tracking when you feel unsafe, in a state of feeling danger (fight, flight, hide) or serious threat (freeze, dissociate, shock) allows more personal autonomy in healing. We can heal, our nervous systems have plasticity. The self-protective strategies of our nervous system may have begun to feel normal inside, they are not set in hard-wired. They can be ‘rewired’ for greater connection and safety and PVT teaches us this process.

Polyvagal Theory – Principles and Tools

Polyvagal theory is built upon three principles:
1. Hierarchy
2. Neuroception
3. Co-regulation.

When applying the Polyvagal Theory, therapists can help their clients:

– Gain awareness of the constant communication between the body and the brain
– Understand how chronic stress lives in the body long after a traumatic event
– Develop insight how past trauma may lead to extreme emotions or states of being shut down
– Recover from trauma by learning how to perceive and regulate emotions
– Learn to “rewire” their own nervous system

Deb Dana: The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation
Polyvagal Theory in practice by Dee Wagner

Licensed clinical mental health counselor
Tisha Shull is a co-host of the popular IFS Podcast, IFS Talks. She has been a Program Assistant for IFS Level 1 and Level 2 trainings many times internationally. In her practice, Tisha has a special interest in combining IFS with Cranial Sacral Therapy as well as a Past Life Regression Therapy.

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