Polyvagal Theory: Claiming Our Evolutionary Heritage as a Social Species

Ground breakers, innovators – originators who turn up the dial in their chosen field – the experts’ experts; The Master Series brings them together each quarter in a program focused on one “Big Idea”, which this September (23-25), is Trauma. Designed to challenge what you thought you knew about trauma concepts and healing, along with how you view the world and your experiences in it, The Master Series is your opportunity to gain access to some of the greatest minds in the world of trauma theory and healing.

Doctors Bessel van der Kolk (Sept 23), Peter Levine (Sept 24) and Stephen Porges (Sept 25), will pass on highlights from a lifetime in the area of trauma, each with their own focus but with a common theme of needing to unlock trauma which is held by the body. Without this release, liberation from (especially complex) trauma is highly compromised, resigning the subject to a lifetime of pain and suffering. Each of these inspirational men has been responsible for turning around the lives of numerous trauma sufferers the world-over. Here we discuss Polyvagal Theory which revealed the complex connection between the brain, the body and trauma.

In 1994, Professor Stephen Porges proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of the physiological state in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders. Professor Porges has identified three stages of response; immobilization, mobilization, and social engagement. Immobilization can also be described as freezing or collapsing and this response sits within the parasympathetic nervous system. Mobilization is seen in defensive fight or flight behaviors (including addictions, obsessive-compulsive, and other self-stimulating or self-soothing behaviors) and is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. The ventral (social engagement) and dorsal vagus (rest and digest) areas are where we feel safe and happy and sit within the parasympathetic nervous system. This last area is where we are most present and connected because it’s associated with the good things in life like friends, eating, and feeling happy and carefree.

Mobilization is the first line of defense and is usually accompanied by increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and tensed muscles. This is the body literally mobilizing its physical resources to deal with outside threats which can extend from trying to befriend or appease the source of a threat, confront it, or if all else fails, run for its life. Immobilization is the body’s second line of defense (and also last resort), usually only employed if fighting or fleeing isn’t an option. It is associated with defeat, helplessness, shame, and altered or loss of consciousness. The social engagement system is used to engage with ourselves and others and is represented by the face, throat and chest; the areas where we show emotion, vulnerability, and where we are said to feel love. It represents love, repair, rest, and physical and emotional restoration. This is where we sleep, eat, play, meditate, and procreate.

Studies have found that trauma retunes the autonomic state causing a variety of issues from difficulties with emotion regulation to anxiety and depression and relates to the state of vagal tone. Not only can this lack of attunement cause behavioral issues but it is evident in the physical symptoms associated with stress and trauma such as:

  • Turning pale
  • Sweating
  • Blurry vision
  • Dizziness, light-headedness, or fainting
  • Nausea
  • Clamminess
  • Feeling hot, especially in the facial region

In layman’s terms, when things get out of whack, our ability to connect is diminished and our arousal becomes activated or heightened, potentially having dire consequences for our health, relationships and the way we function in the world. The seminal work of Professor Porges has been a game-changer for helping to shine a light on why people may struggle with emotion regulation and that there is hope for their treatment and regaining control of their lives.

“If you want to improve the world, start by making people feel safer.” – Professor Stephen Porges

In Professor Porges’s workshop on September 25 he will:

Elaborate on how Polyvagal Theory provides a neural foundation for a brain-body medicine that would lead to insights into the treatment of trauma and chronic stress-related mental and physical health challenges. There will be three lectures of approximately 45 minutes in duration that will be followed by 10-15 minutes of questions and answers.

Learning Objectives Lecture 1 (to understand):

  • Reciprocity, co-regulation, and connectedness (biological imperative)
  • The autonomic nervous system (ANS) changed during evolution

Learning Objectives Lecture 2 (to understand):

  • The ANS functions in a hierarchical manner paralleling evolution
  • ANS shifts ‘state’ consistent with evolution in reverse or dissolution
  • The Social Engagement System links regulation of the muscles of the face and head with vagal regulation of the heart (vagal brake)
  • Trauma re-tunes autonomic state, compromising the ability to feel safe enough to connect with others.
  • Neuroception
  • ANS state as an intervening variable (clinical symptoms)

Learning Objectives Lecture 3 (to understand):

  • ANS state as an intervening variable (vagal efficiency)
  • ANS state as an intervening variable (therapy/treatment)

We look forward to seeing you at the conference. Take advantage of our early bird discount now.

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