Polyvagal Theory and Trauma:
How Understanding the Body’s Response Can Inform Treatment
Trauma can have a profound impact on a person’s life, influencing their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Traditional trauma treatment approaches focus on psychological interventions; however, understanding the physiological response to trauma is equally important. Polyvagal theory offers a new perspective on trauma, explaining how the nervous system responds to stress and trauma. This article aims to explore the polyvagal theory and its implications for trauma treatment.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, describes how the nervous system responds to stress and trauma. It suggests that the nervous system has three distinct levels, with each level responsible for a different response to stress. The theory proposes that the evolutionary development of the nervous system has shaped our response to stress and trauma.
a. The Vagal Nerve
The vagal nerve is the longest nerve in the body and is responsible for regulating several important bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and breathing. Polyvagal theory suggests that the vagal nerve plays a crucial role in our response to stress and trauma.
b. The Three Levels of the Autonomic Nervous System
Polyvagal theory suggests that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has three distinct levels, each responsible for a different response to stress:
i. The Social Engagement System: The first level of the ANS is the social engagement system, responsible for social interaction and communication. This system helps regulate emotions and supports our ability to connect with others.
ii. The Sympathetic Nervous System: The second level of the ANS is the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight response. This system prepares the body to fight or flee in response to a perceived threat.
iii. The Dorsal Vagal Complex: The third level of the ANS is the dorsal vagal complex, responsible for the freeze and collapse response. This system helps the body conserve energy and shut down in response to a perceived threat.
The Body’s Response to Trauma
Trauma can trigger a range of physiological responses, depending on the level of perceived threat. The three primary responses to trauma are fight-or-flight, freeze, and collapse.
a. Fight-or-Flight Response
The fight-or-flight response is a well-known physiological response to stress and trauma. It is activated when the sympathetic nervous system perceives a threat and prepares the body to fight or flee. During
this response, the heart rate increases, breathing becomes rapid, and blood flow is redirected to the muscles.
b. Freeze Response
The freeze response occurs when the body perceives a threat that is too overwhelming to fight or flee from. During this response, the dorsal vagal complex is activated, causing the body to shut down and conserve energy. This response can result in feelings of dissociation or numbness.
c. Collapse Response
The collapse response occurs when the body is unable to fight or flee and is overwhelmed by the perceived threat. This response can lead to a loss of consciousness, a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, and even fainting.
Understanding Trauma through Polyvagal Theory
Polyvagal theory provides a new perspective on trauma, emphasizing the role of the nervous system in regulating our response to stress. Trauma is viewed as a dysregulation of the nervous system, with the body’s response to stress becoming disrupted. This dysregulation can result in ongoing symptoms such as anxiety, hypervigilance, and dissociation.
a. Trauma as Dysregulation of the Nervous System
Polyvagal theory suggests that trauma can lead to dysregulation of the nervous system, with the body’s response to stress becoming stuck in a particular state. This dysregulation can result in ongoing symptoms and difficulties regulating emotions.
b. Trauma Triggers and Memories
Polyvagal theory also highlights the role of trauma triggers and memories in perpetuating trauma-related symptoms. Trauma triggers can activate the sympathetic nervous system or the dorsal vagal complex, leading to a range of physical and emotional symptoms. Memories of trauma can also be stored in the body, leading to ongoing dysregulation of the nervous system.
c. Polyvagal Theory and PTSD
Polyvagal theory has implications for understanding and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is viewed as a dysregulation of the nervous system in response to trauma. By understanding the body’s response to trauma, therapists can better support individuals with PTSD to regulate their nervous system and reduce symptoms.
Polyvagal Theory and Trauma Treatment
Polyvagal theory has informed the development of several trauma treatment approaches, emphasizing the importance of safety and co-regulation in the healing process.
a. Safety and Co-regulation
Safety and co-regulation are essential components of trauma treatment. Polyvagal theory emphasizes the role of the social engagement system in supporting emotional regulation and connection with others. Therapists can support individuals in developing a sense of safety and connection through a variety of techniques, including mindfulness, grounding exercises, and psychoeducation.
b. Somatic Experiencing
Somatic experiencing (SE) is a trauma treatment approach that is informed by polyvagal theory. SE emphasizes the role of the body in processing and releasing trauma. By supporting individuals in connecting with their bodily sensations and experiences, SE can help to release stored trauma and promote emotional regulation.
c. Polyvagal-Informed Yoga
Polyvagal-informed yoga is a new approach to trauma treatment that combines the benefits of yoga with the principles of polyvagal theory. This approach emphasizes the role of the body in regulating the nervous system. Therapists can guide individuals through a series of yoga poses designed to promote grounding and emotional regulation.
Polyvagal theory offers a new perspective on trauma, emphasizing the role of the nervous system in regulating our response to stress. By understanding the body’s response to trauma, therapists can better support individuals in regulating their emotions and reducing symptoms. Polyvagal-informed approaches to trauma treatment, such as somatic experiencing and polyvagal-informed yoga, offer promising new directions for trauma treatment