06 Oct The Polyvagal Perspective
The Polyvagal perspective provides an insight into our nervous system and how it responds to safety and threat. This theory then illustrates, using the nervous system responses to triggers or stimuli, how our body attempts to keep us safe.
Our nervous system is constantly scanning our environment and assessing safety or danger. This comes from our history of being hunter-gatherers and living in tribes, needing to constantly be on the lookout for predators, enemies, or unsafe food. In much of the world, these threats no longer exist in the same way, however the body continues to be on the lookout!
To better understand this ‘threat response’, and how our body keeps us safe, lets look at the three states in the nervous system. These three states are controlled by the nervous system, which is made up of two distinct parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
Sympathetic (Fight/ Flight):
The sympathetic part of the nervous system is that section that responds to danger and creates a state that prepares us to protect ourselves. This is referred to as the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response or state. It is the first response to danger and involves experiencing typical symptoms of stress, such as rapid heart rate, fearfulness, or even anxiety and panic attacks.
The second part of the nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is made up of the vagus nerve, and has two ‘states’ or responses:
- Dorsal Vagal (Freeze):
The dorsal vagal or ‘freeze’ response is what occurs when ‘fight/flight’ does not keep us safe and is the body’s last resort. It is an extreme response to stress and anxiety, and when it occurs, our body shuts down and collapses. In this state, we experience feelings of numbness, fog, exhaustion, and despair. This can often be experienced as dissociation, depression, and a complete lack of energy.
- Ventral Vagal (Safe/ Rest and Digest):
The ventral vagal response or state is the ‘safe’ state. This is the part of us that is active when we feel safe, socially engaged, and able to enjoy life. In this state we can feel happy, connected, relaxed and calm, engaging comfortably in self-care, work, and play.
What does it all mean?
We move between these three states during our day, depending on our experiences. When we are in a state of wellbeing, the nervous system works together to keep us regulated and healthy. However, when we are in an anxious or stressed state, we have an overactive or hypervigilant nervous system, constantly scanning for danger, and often perceiving it in everyday, normal situations or experiences. This can result in us spending more time in the fight/flight/freeze state.
So, what now?
By understanding how the nervous system functions in when in safety or under threat, we can start to learn how to move between the states. This allows us to build the skills necessary to move into a state of safety when we feel threatened, stressed, or anxious. This begins by:
- Understanding what causes the fight/flight and freeze response,
- Learning how to recognise when you are in each of the states
- Beginning to explore what helps create a sense of safety
- Using these strategies to move out of fight/flight/freeze mode
Whilst it can be helpful to explore this with a professional, in general some things that can help include:
- Grounding and mindfulness.
- Deep breathing.
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Exercise and self-care.
- Connection with people who help you feel safe.
- Engaging in activities that bring you joy.