man sitting on the couch looking stressed

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal theory is about how our body responds to, and processes, stress. Polyvagal means many wandering nerves related to the vagal nerve in our body. Polyvagal theory was first described by Dr Stephen Porges in 1994 and now informs many therapists worldwide.

The Three States of Activation

Dr Porges research has proven our body has three different states of stress or neural activation, previously the view was we had two states. These three states are:

    1. Ventral Vagal (most recent physiological state evolved for connection and safety)
      In this state, we are in healthy homeostasis. The behaviours associated with this state are compassion, connectedness, playfulness, joy and love.We can maintain a state of regulation and ability to learn new things and concepts. Our Social Engagement System is activated in this state and we are able to accurately read peoples facial expressions and hear them fully. In this state we feel safe and secure.This is our happy place.
    2. Sympathetic Activation (second oldest nervous system state evolved for survival)
      In this state, there is mobilisation to take action (fight or flight). We can experience hyperacusis (sensitivity to noise), hypertension, chaos, stress, anxiety disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some of the behaviours associated with this state are hypervigilance, inattention and poor sleep patterns.People can experience tightness in their back muscles, which are activated and locked up with cramping and pain. This is because the sympathetic ganglia (nervous system structure) is located along the spine. When there is sympathetic activation, the back muscles become tight and rigid. Being able to move into Ventral Vagal state can have a powerful effect in releasing the tension in back muscles.This is our survival place.
    3. Dorsal Vagal Shutdown (oldest nervous system state evolved for survival)
      In this state, there is immobilisation. This can be experienced in two ways through vaso-vagal syncope (faintness) or in shutdown where there is complete immobilisation of the body.We can experience hypotension, chronic fatigue, Fibromyalgia, digestive disorders and depression. Some of the behaviours associated with this state are lethargy, despondency, inability to self-motivate, hopelessness, shame, a lack of agency, self-harming and suicide risk.This is our oldest survival place.

Maintaining Sympathetic Activation

Maintaining Sympathetic activation for prolonged periods of time is not sustainable for our bodies and our health, so eventually our nervous system will move down into dorsal vagal to give our body a rest. However this state of what can seem like “extreme chilled out” is capped by the sympathetic activation and can result in outbursts of anger and energy. This can happen as the nervous system moves through sympathetic activation to reach ventral vagal.

All three states can happen in relatively short time spaces. It is important to know that sympathetic activation isn’t skipped over—our nervous system will move through sympathetic activation as it goes up to ventral vagal, or down to dorsal vagal.

In both sympathetic activation and dorsal vagal, our perception is affected. We are unable to accurately interpret facial expressions, the middle ear muscle (stapedius) stiffens and the ossicular chain in the middle ear doesn’t move freely in response to sounds. This means we hear low frequency sounds best and higher frequency sounds, such as the human voice, are absorbed into the background.

The V and VII facial nerves are involved in working the stapedius muscle and the Eustachian tube, so chronically inflamed ears can also affect hearing of higher frequencies. This is because fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear due to a blocked Eustachian tube.

Why it is Helpful to Know About Polyvagal Theory

Being in sympathetic arousal or dorsal vagal is being in a survival state. It increases and changes your perception of pain, how you see the world, how you interpret people’s faces and the frequency of sound you can hear. This all contributes to seeing the environment and other people as threatening and dangerous. It limits your performance in life.

Your energy is reduced as the body’s ability to digest food is altered, making less resources available to your body. This impairs your physical response to heal and your cognitive emotional response to connect with others.

In this state intimate and personal relationships are affected. Your ability to relate to others is impacted so connection, empathy, joy and sense of safety are impaired.

Changing your thoughts and beliefs will not alter your state as it is a physiological response and you need to work with your body with techniques and practices that interrupt the neural activation and brings you back to a state of ventral vagal.

For more information contact Deborah on 0458 677 108.

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