what is it?
“If you want to improve the world, start by making people feel safe.” Stephen Porges
My road to Polyvagal Theory has been a long one, starting with my own experiences of stress, anxiety and depression, an interest in the body and how differently we feel when we are regulated. That took me to body work, yoga, dancing, singing and then later to counselling and a slight detour via mindfulness.
Polyvagal Theory was a side turning that I took one day, not expecting it to be my new direction. Sometimes life surprises us, unexpected journeys can lead us into a whole new world or a discovery that will change how we see our world.
Polyvagal Theory is often referred to as the “science of safety”. Now I would never have considered myself a scientist (if anything, I would have called myself a creative) and neuroscience is a new science, but Polyvagal Theory makes sense to me, in my brain, my body, in my emotions and my nervous system. Yes, there are those who dispute it and I want to be honest about that up front, but I am finding that the more I learn about it, the more clients that I use it with and the more I use it myself, the more changes I see happening in others and that I experience in myself, the more convinced I am that this is a journey worth taking. If you are interested and would like to explore it for yourself, then I can help you to do that and you can make your own decision about it.
So what is it?
In 1994, Dr Stephen Porges proposed the Polyvagal Theory. My very condensed version is that it started with the discovery that our Autonomic Nervous System (or ANS) is comprised of three parts - or states – a regulated social engagement state and two other states that make up our survival response. You might have heard of “flight or flight”. Well, there’s also a freeze or shutdown response and this can often explain why the survivors of trauma describe not being able to fight back – their ANS has taken them into a shutdown response.
Alongside these observations, Porges also proposed that the nervous system state that we are experiencing impacts our ability to be socially engaged with others. In addition, it seems that the state has an affect on how we experience our “story” or how we experience other people, ourselves, the world, life, our work, our relationships, our beliefs, our feeling and body sensations and that if we can change our state, we can then change our story. In simple terms, if we can regulate our ANS and change our state, how we feel, think, behave changes as well.
To give you an idea of the kind of experiences we have in these different states, in fight or flight, we might feel agitated, angry, stressed, irritable, anxious, panicky or need to get away or get out of situations. In shutdown, we might go numb or not feel our emotions, we might withdraw and feel the need to hide away. We may well feel helpless and hopeless.
When we feel regulated, we are able to feel connected to others and the world around us, we can communicate and are able to feel a level of capability, possibility and optimism.
It seems that our nervous systems are “patterned” by our life experiences and continue to be “repatterned” all the time and what I find exciting is that we can learn how to actively repattern them. Our ANS acts automatically because it needs to, to keep us alive, but we can learn how to regulate it with intention.
Crucially, whilst we can learn to regulate ourselves, we regulate with others, or co-regulate, and it seems that we are biologically wired to do so. We can co-regulate with other people and with animals. Equally, we can dysregulate each other too.
If you think about the pandemic and the affect that lockdown has had on many people, perhaps part of it could be down to the fact that co-regulating with others was made impossible for some people. Certainly, co-regulating in person was at times not an option for those living on their own or having to isolate. For those living together, you may have either co-regulated or dysregulated each other.
Porges also described interactions between our nervous systems as “neuroception” and this happens without our awareness. Your nervous system and another person’s nervous system react to each other and we may only feel this reaction as a physical or emotional response. Think about the idea of “gut reaction” – I think this is perhaps a type of neuroception.
Our ANS is constantly scanning for cues of safety or danger through neuroception and if we have gone through a lot of stress or trauma, the patterning in our system can mean that it starts picking up cues of danger where there is now safety. It’s acting in the service of your survival, as it always has, but it’s possible that it’s reacting to past patterning, rather than what’s happening in the present moment.
Polyvagal Theory is being integrated into psychotherapy and counselling across the world and it can help you get to know your nervous system and your experience of these states and how to actively “repattern” your system.
Realising that we can bring safety into our system in a variety of ways, can be a game changer and that’s what we can help with in therapy. We can not only look at what happens when you get triggered into fight or flight or the shutdown response, we can look at how we can help you bring back enough safety into your system, so that you can regulate it. And we do that together.
How do I work with Polyvagal Theory?
In a few different ways, is the short answer.
1. I can integrate it into our counselling sessions.
2. I can offer a more directive approach where we start by working through set exercises together. This may lead onto counselling if you want it to and it looks like it might be helpful.
3. I can offer a Polyvagal informed consultation session for other therapists (both talking therapists and bodyworkers) who are interested in or learning about the theory, either for their own benefit or integrating it into their work. [Please note: this is not clinical supervision]
4. I can offer a Polyvagal informed consultation for businesses or organisations where it might be helpful to have an understanding of how our nervous systems affect us and how we interact with each other, the affect that has on our relationships and our ability to engage and feel fulfilled.
If you would like to know more, please either call me on 07580 102758 and leave a message or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org