In order to heal from trauma, it is helpful to understand how our nervous system gathers information from our environment and responds to it. Polyvagal theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges, offers this explanation and can enhance trauma therapy approaches.
Sympathetic Nervous System
It’s easy to recognize when our autonomic nervous system is activated in sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, response. When the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, you may experience the following symptoms: racing heart, sweaty palms, muscle tightness, belly tingles. The fight-or-flight response quickly alerts our body that something in our environment is potentially threatening, alerting us to “mobilize” and react. The sympathetic nervous system can be activated in both response to threat/safety but also in activity or play, such as participating in sports or competition.
There are some situations in our life where fight-or-flight may not be appropriate or sufficient to offer safety and protection. In these situations, we might shift into a dorsal or “freeze” state. We rely about our autonomic nervous system to scan our environment and react accordingly. If an environment is life-threatening or overwhelming to our system, it may be safer to withdraw, shut down or collapse. Like the fight-or-flight response, we can move towards immobilization as a result of fear and danger. It may also be necessary to access dorsal response, such as in the need to safely shut down for sleep or recovery.
There is another parasympathetic response that can be accessed by our autonomic nervous system. When the ventral vagal system is engaged, we are able to feel safe and connected in our environment. This response is often stimulated by what is knows as the face-heart connection: facial expressions, sounds, posture, eye contact. We can stimulate the ventral vagus response by listening to music, in physical activity, deep breathing and by engaging in activities that promote co-regulation and connection, such as in the therapeutic relationship. For those who have experienced trauma, it can be more difficult to access the safety and connection available through the ventral vagal response.
Heal From Trauma With Polyvagal Theory & EMDR
Polyvagal theory offers a bottoms up approach, helping us to understand how our nervous system interprets information and responds through our body towards an automatic state of response. Our ability to shift between these states – dorsal, sympathetic and ventral – can be impacted by traumatic experiences and trauma therapy can help regulate the system to respond more effectively to surroundings.