Bodies are complicated machines! They not only keep homeostasis (balance) of all of the internal processes, but they also interpret and have to make sense of the outside world as well. Our nervous system is responsible for interpreting our sensory experiences. Any sight, sound, smell, touch or taste that we experience moves through our bodies to our brains. Our brains interpret these experiences and adjust the body accordingly. Example: If your eyes notice a predator headed in your direction, it tells your muscles to run! We have spinal nerves that are connected to our bodily muscle movement and we have cranial nerves that are important for our sensory experiences (think eyes, mouth, ears, neck). Polyvagal theory is an understanding that the cranial nerve system (more specifically the vagus nerve or CN-X) in conjunction with other cranial nerves, send and receive signals in the brain and throughout the whole body.
We've traditionally been taught about fight/flight response as the only response related to stress or trauma. Polyvagal theory posits that there are two branches of the vagus nerve that react during stress: fight/flight and immobilization (or fawn/faint). When the vagus nerve tone is weak due to illness or trauma, we can chronically live between these two states. This can mean sometimes we feel tense or anxious (fight/flight activation) and sometimes we can feel depressed, lethargic or unmotivated (fawn/faint state).
In a strong or toned vagus nerve system and moving out of a stress response, these two states can actually be beneficial to us. Fight/Flight becomes play, exploration, curiosity and social engagement. Fawn/Faint becomes deep and actual rest.
Polyvagal theory informed therapy means that we want to get you out of the negative stress responses and more into positive nervous system engagement. We do this by doing physical exercises to increase vagal tone in conjunction with talk therapy to address emotions and underlying feelings. By increasing awareness of sensations and emotions, as well as toning the vagus nerve, it results in more states of social engagement, play and deep rest.
We know that life has stress and there are unexpected moments that can lead to trauma. Polyvagal theory helps bring strength to the nervous system so that an appropriate stress response can occur in the moment and then you are more likely and able to bounce back to the improved state of social engagement.
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