Polyvagal theory is applied to the world of therapy by Maine’s own, Deb Dana. I’ll do my best to offer a brief summary here, but if you are more of an auditory learner, please watch one of Dana’s many Youtube’s here.
Polyvagal theory looks at our remarkable nervous system and how it’s evolved to regulate our internal systems (i.e. intestines), help us assess for safety, and engage with others to help regulate. Our physiological responses to danger and our need for social connection come together in the polyvagal theory.
Like many animals, we scan and rapidly react to both our internal reactions and our external environments to look for cues of safety or danger. Neuroception refers to the neural circuits in our bodies that give us the ability to scan feel safe or endangered. The process of neuroception is innate and happens outside of our awareness. Unfortunately, neuroception is biased towards a sense of unsafety, as this is how our ancestors fought for survival. As a result, those who are more regularly triggered by threat are likely to have the same experience again and again. Here, is why polyvagal theory goes hand in hand with treating trauma in therapy.
The Vagus Nerve
The prefix poly- means many. Polyvagal refers to the many components of the vagus nerve, and is the biological basis for this theory. The vagus nerve runs along the autonomic nervous system. From an evolutionary perspective, the dorsal vagus pathway is the oldest part of our safety response system. This means that our most ancient ancestors had only one safety response, shutting down and playing dead. It was all only when the sympathetic branch developed, many many years later, that we learned to fight or flee from danger. Finally, along the top of our vagus pathway, our ventral vagal neurons developed, allowing us to feel safe and connected to ourselves and others.
The Autonomic Ladder
Deb Dana uses the metaphor of a ladder to explain how neuroconception works in human beings. When our nervous system first meets danger, we immediately react with fight or flight. Our vision begins narrow, our heart starts racing, and we hyper focus on the potential threat. When we stabilize and regain a sense of control, we are able to climb up the ladder into the ventral vagal system. Our nervous system begins to slow down and our physiological response returns to a healthy baseline.
The shift from sympathetic nervous system to ventral vagal system often happens multiple times throughout the day, not just in the face of imminent “big T” trauma (i.e. assault). Think of seeing a coworker who you’ve found out was talking poorly about you to your boss earlier that day. As you see them and think “I should confront them” you are accessing your sympathetic response. Adrenaline is pumping and you feel anxious. However, once you talk to your boss and feel secure in your job, you start to climb back up the ladder, feeling a sense of security.
Alternatively, when we feel like they cannot escape danger, we fall down the ladder to our dorsal vagal region. Here, we feel numb, not at all connected to the world and not a part of. I find the most interesting part of this ladder in the idea that, from an evolutionary lens, being anxious is far better than being shut down. When we are anxious and mobilized, we still have energy to do something about our situation, feeling autonomy and control.
Deb's House Analogy
Using the analogy of a home, the dorsal vagal systems runs it’s utilities. It keeps basic systems in line and running automatically. Without access to our ventral vagal system, the house runs but no one is home or remains unconnected in the home, functioning at the lowest possible level of survival. Our fight or flight response maintains our home security system, responding immediately to threat. Once again, however, without access to our ventral vagal system, the fight or flight response/sympathetic nervous system sets off an alarm that continues to ring. Without the ventral vagal system, our quality of life is non existent. We are unable to enjoy life and trust that our utilities and security will function when and how they need to.