Polyvagal Theory in Therapy
What is polyvagal theory?
Polyvagal theory explains how your nervous system chooses a response based on whether threat or safety is detected in your environment. In polyvagal theory, these states are referred to as dorsal, sympathetic and ventral vagal state responses.
What do you need to know about polyvagal theory?
The most primitive of these responses is the dorsal state, which can lead to complete shut down of your body and system if the threat is perceived as being too overwhelming to survive through reaction. A sympathetic response will activate your fight or flight response if your system detects that you may be able to survive through action. The ventral vagal response is our most recently evolved nervous system response and is engaged when safety and connection are detected in your surroundings.
When exposed to trauma, your system will react in a fight, flight or freeze response depending upon how the situation is interpreted by your nervous system and whether safety is accessible in that moment. When exposed to chronic stress or trauma, your nervous system response can become stuck even when there is no longer danger present. Polyvagal theory is woven into the foundation of many trauma therapy approaches.
Trauma creates change you don't choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose.
What to expect in polyvagal therapy sessions?
Polyvagal theory is a therapeutic model, not a specific intervention and can be used to improve outcomes in trauma therapy sessions. In sessions where polyvagal approaches are used, you will learn how to manage your nervous system responses – shut down, fight or flight and safety – by becoming more aware of what it feels like to shift between states in response to your environment.
There are a number of exercises and activities that can be used in or outside of therapy to shift nervous system states. By understanding the influence of polyvagal theory on our nervous system response and learning how to recognize and shift states you will experience improvements in mood and function.
What are the benefits of using polyvagal theory?
Polyvagal theory teaches us how to appropriately interpret cues from our environment and react accordingly. Understanding polyvagal theory can have a positive impact on your response to treatment by offering you further understanding of how your body has adapted to learn to survive. Polyvagal approaches can be used in conjunction with other psychotherapies such as EMDR and IFS to heal from trauma.