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As we all learned in school, we have two options in the face of perceived danger: fight or flight. But that was before neuroscientist Stephen Porges—author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation
—undertook his research into the relationship between human physiology and social engagement.
Porges’ work dramatically broadens our understanding of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, and explains how our bodies and brains interact with one another to regulate our physiological states. However, what may be more pertinent to therapists is the extent to which our autonomic nervous systems influence long-term issues with intimacy and trust. In this Networker
interview, Porges offers some research-based insights into how therapists can more effectively convey safety to clients and clarifies the evolutionary roots of anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Can you explain your Polyvagal Theory in simple terms?Porges:
In the past, we tended to believe that stress responses were, in general, vested within the sympathetic nervous system’s capacity to support fight-or-flight behaviors. But there’s another defense system that’s mediated through a vagal circuit. It produces a behavioral shutdown such as fainting or, from a clinical perspective, dissociation. This defense system doesn’t fit within the fight-or-flight model. Nor does it fit within the view that the vagus, the major nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, mediates calmness and induces resilience and health.RH:
The vagal system that makes us freeze, right?Porges:
Yes, but there are two vagal systems. Think about it this way. When you want to calm a person down, you smile and talk to them in a soothing way. The nervous system detects these cues and down-regulates or inhibits the sympathetic nervous system. But when the sympathetic nervous system is activated as a defense system, it turns off all those social-engagement behaviors. Clinicians are aware of that. But what they often don’t understand is the role of the vagal system in shutting down as a defensive strategy in response to a life threat. When someone is immobilized, held down, or abused, the vagal system is triggered, and they may disassociate or pass out. It’s an adaptive response.
I often talk about immobilization with fear and contrast it to immobilization without fear. The mouse in the jaws of a cat is immobilized with fear. The mouse isn’t voluntarily playing dead; it’s fainted. But someone in the embrace of a lover, parent, child, or friend is immobilized without fear. To read Ryan’s complete interview with Stephen Porges and learn more about Polyvagal Theory, subscribe to the Psychotherapy Networker.
autonomic nervous system